Cultures & Traditions

African Headwear

Similar to other traditional African masks and figures, headwear is about more than aesthetics: it is functional and meaningful. It is a means of nonverbal communication about the wearer, such as gender, status in society, membership in an association, rank in an organization, profession, or affiliation with a deity. According to many African peoples, the head is the most important part of the body. It is the site of an individual’s intelligence, creativity, wisdom, and clairvoyance. Headwear not only adorns the head but also honors the site of an individual’s intelligence, dreams, and destiny.

In stratified societies, the most elaborate headwear, made of the finest materials and requiring intense labor, is usually reserved for leadership – political or religious leaders and social elites – while the lowest-ranking individuals on the social ladder may be denied the right to wear anything at all on their heads. Yoruba kings to this day appear in public wearing voluminous robes and veiled, cone-shaped crowns (ade) adorned with colorful coral or glass beads [2008.39.a-b]. A king can choose from a variety of everyday crowns, which may express his personal taste.

Not all societies are stratified like the Yoruba. The Lega, who live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have a "headless" society, without chiefs. Governance is vested in an age-graded association called Bwami, which is also the educational system by which Lega values of moderation, nonviolence, solidarity, respect, and moral and physical perfection are taught. Bwami is the channel for the visual and performing arts. It is ultimately a channel for prestige. Each grade in Bwami has its own emblems, which include sculptures carved out of ivory or bone and headwear decorated with significant materials. The highest-ranking male members of the association wear the sawamazembe, a hat reminiscent of a woman's plaited hairstyle [1992.509]. Wives of the highest-ranking members wear the muzombolo, which has a phallic shape. When paired together in the performance of Bwami rituals, these headdresses visually stress the importance of mutual support for the good of the community.

The selection of African headwear in the Dallas Museum of Art collection was once—and in some instances still is—worn by kings and chiefs, religious practitioners, warriors, men, and women in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, African Headwear: Beyond Fashion (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2011).