The tradition of neckrest use is widely recorded throughout Africa, however nowhere is it more prevalent than in southern Africa. The present example forms part of a wider corpus of objects carved by Zulu speakers in the mid-19th century in the vicinity of Port Natal. This group is notable for their distinctive surface decoration of deep incisions. It appears the items were being produced around this period for both an elite African (including Zulu king Mpande kaSenzangakhona, pictured right) and western colonial clientele. Nguni sculptures of this type were exhibited in the west as early as the International Exhibition, held in London in 1862, and were brought back by explorers, missionaries and others who had acquired them either by trade or as gifts.
What makes this piece so unique is that the other objects in this group are vessels; with examples residing in the Metropolitan Museum, British Museum, the Musée Quai Branly in Paris and the Johannesburg Art Gallery amongst others. They are considered as being amongst the very apogee of Southern African art. Unlike the vastly inferior example housed at the Musee du Quai Branly, the Nguni neckrest under discussion here can be firmly placed within the central group of work by these masters.
Standing on four legs, it is intended to evoke the shape of a fattened cow. Portable art, in particular neckrests, often echoed the shape of cattle. This was not only to represent the centrality of these animals within Nguni societies, but to reference the practice of lobola, the gifting of cattle between the bride and groom’s families prior to marriage. Given that neckrests were also often included in this gift exchange, the shape of the object is making direct reference to the trade in livestock that will also take place (Nel 2002).
As mentioned above, these objects were being produced around Port Natal for both African and western clients. Therefore we don’t know if the piece was initially “bought from source”, or if it was acquired later from an elite African individual, certainly by the mid-19th century, many of the trappings of chiefly authority were acquired as prestige gifts, war booty or trade and brought back to the west (Klopper 2002). Though we cannot know how the piece was initially acquired, we know it had resided in Scotland since at least 1921, given the additional emergence of a painting by the artist Robert Cree Crawford (1842-1924) depicting the object, signed and dated to that year.
The emergence of this exceptional neckrest represented an exciting moment for both the market and the development in the study of Nguni art.