Dogon / Tellem Zoomorphic Headrest

  • Tribe: Dogon / Tellem
  • Origin: Mali
  • Approx Age: late 19th early 20th Century
  • Materials: Wood
  • Dimensions cm: 32 long x 14 tall
  • Ref. Number: 0907

An old and stunning zoomorphic Dogon headrest from an old UK collection. This headrest has beautiful patina, to which I have tried to show in the photographs but they do not show this detail as much as I was hoping. It is very visible on the arms which come from the base and mostly on one side of the scalloped top (the side to which it leans).  This is a lovely aged item which previously had been in a collection for over 50 years, there are nice age lines, slight cracking and it has a few more recent scuffs, possibly where it had been stored after the collector passed on.

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A headrest can be seen here on the left side of the Hogon’s building above the Toguna post


Headrests were used to protect elaborate hairstyles at night. Similarly used in ancient Egypt, headrests were used to keep the head level with the shoulders whilst sleeping. However, headrests go far beyond mere practicality. Associated with sleep and dreams, headrests absorbed dark powers. A significant number of very old headrests have been found in Dogon country in Mali. These headrests were not used by the Dogon but by the Tellem, a people living in the cliff faces before the arrival of the Dogon. These days, the Dogon believe that their spiritual leader Hogon, whose head could not touch the ground, must have used such a headrest

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Dogon art is not a single fixed style as has been often characterised in discussions of their sculpture, for the age of Dogon art extends to the past as early as the 12th century and continues to be created in the present with a number of sub-styles measured against the core of an identifiable Dogon art and style.The Dogon interchange stylistic elements with neighbouring groups producing an interesting hybridism in some of their interesting sub-styles. This headrest/stool may reflects an influence that neighbouring groups can have on the well defined core of Dogon sculpture. Scholars do not have enough evidences to confirm if the Dogon have produced and used headrests. Number of them state that most of the headrests attributed to the Dogon were carved by the Tellem, an old population who first occupied the Dogon region. A few scholars support that headrests were carved and used by the Dogon, especially by Hogon priests and during burial ceremonies. The heads on this headrest/stool are similar to these found on some Dogon artefacts.


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The Dogon inhabit the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali. Dogon’s diverse and masterful sculpture is intimately linked with the cult of the ancestors. Figures are made to house the spirits of the deceased on the family shrine, and masks are used to drive the spirits away at the end of the mourning period. Iron staffs topped with human figures are also made, and some personal ornaments are cast in brass. Dogon social and religious organisations are closely interlinked and out of these arose four principle cults which account for richness, power and diversity of Dogon culture and art. Also found in Dogon territory are, possibly, the oldest wood sculptures to survive (three have been dated by carbon-14 to the 15th to 17th century AD). They were found in caves in the Bandiagara escarpment. The Dogon attribute them to an earlier population, the Tellem. These figures, usually of simplified and elongated form, often with hands raised, seem to be the prototype of the ancestor figures that the Dogon carve on the doors and locks of their houses and granaries; investigations have confirmed that the Tellem were ethnically a different people from the Dogon, though the art style appears to have been handed on from one people to the other.

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