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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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"Humans are the only animals that wear hats," said Thomas Murray, a dealer who specializes in ar               tifacts from Indonesia and island cultures. "In fact, wearing hats is what makes us human. It's a fundamental commonality to our human-ness."

In tribal societies, headdresses rule. It's not the clothes but the hat that often makes a man (or woman). The headdress is a universal adornment. "It's the great unifier," Mr. Murray said.

By WENDY MOONAN May 14, 2004 

African headdress week in New York 2004

This could be called headdress week in New York. Mr. Murray, the owner of Asiatica Ethnographica in Mill Valley, Calif., has organized an exhibition of more than 50 of them, from Africa, Asia and the Americas, at the New York International Tribal and Textile Arts Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory, Park Avenue at 67th Street. Information: (212) 472-1180.

The fair, which is open to the public tomorrow through Monday, is timed to coincide with Sotheby's auction today of African, Oceanic and pre-Columbian art.

"Positioned atop the highest, most conspicuous feature of the human body, headgear is a billboard, broadcasting information about its wearer and his or her place in the world," Diane Mott, textiles curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, writes in a catalog essay.

Explaining that her museum is actively building a collection of headdresses, Ms. Mott illustrates her essay with recent acquisitions: an embroidered felt dervish hat from Iran; a man's feather headdress from the Amazon Basin in Brazil; a ritual Sarawak hat in rattan from western Borneo; a woman's ceremonial headdress in yak hair from Ladakh, a region of eastern Kashmir; and a beaded cotton crown from the Yoruba people in Nigeria.

"Headdresses are important signifiers," Mr. Murray said. "All over the world now there are two kinds of people: those who want to be modern and take up Western values, and those who are trying to keep traditional culture alive. Happily, old headdresses are still available and affordable."

A headdress is typically made of materials at hand: vegetation (leaves, grasses, seeds, cane, bark and vines); animal parts (feathers, bone, hair, claws, hides, teeth, horns, shells and pearls); and minerals (metals, precious and semiprecious stones).

Lot 55 in Sotheby's sale today is a carved wooden Mambila mask from Nigeria, intricately shaped into a zoomorphic form, with an elongated, pierced snout, wildly protruding cylindrical eyes and two large swept-back horns. "Though there is a Cubistic quality to this, it represents an antelope," said Susan Kloman, a specialist in African art at Sotheby's. "The antelope was the bringer of knowledge about how to till the soil; someone of rank would have worn this during harvest ceremonies."

 Lot 54 is a wooden sculpture of a voluptuous woman who supports a leopard, teeth bared, on her head. "One can surmise it has to do with fertility," Ms. Kloman said. She pointed out the scarification on the woman's face, seen in ridges carved on the forehead and cheeks, as a symbol of rank and prestige.

Lot 29 at Sotheby's sale is a Bamana culture headdress from Mali. The wooden base is covered with a mélange of elements: pig fur, vegetal materials, menacing horns and mud. Cowrie shells form the eyes. Metal chains define the spine.

"The idea is to have an encrusted surface, a layering of materials, to build up the power of the mask," Ms. Kloman said. "This mask is meant to scare new initiates in the Komo male secret society."

Ms. Mott writes, "To nature's inventory, humans have added objects of their own contrivance — mirrors, buttons, sequins, coins, thimbles, bells, tassels, cloth, beads, zippers and amulets are just a few." She did not mention chains.

Headdresses mark ritual or ceremonial occasions. "They also figure in important life transitions, such as initiation, marriage and death," Ms. Mott writes.

Some are worn daily; some are worn only for special occasions. Some are intended for one-time use, others to be preserved and handed down to the next generation.

Headdresses are designed to draw attention to the head. "Many headdresses accentuate the movement of the head when the wearer walks or dances," Daniel P. Biebuyck and Nelly Van den Abbeele write in "The Power of Headdresses," (Tendi S.A., Brussels, 1984). "Feathers, sometimes weighted, and other excrescences wave, flutter, tremble or bend to enhance the general movement of the dancer."

At the Armory, Joan Barist Primitive Art, a private dealership in Manhattan, has a stunning, mid-20th-century conical rattan hat made by the Kuba people in what is now called Congo, that is decorated with concentric circles of red, white and blue beads and rows of cowrie shells, for $3,000.

She also has a mid-20th-century beaded crown from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. It is decorated with wildly whimsical faces. A superstructure above represents a bird in flight. The price is $12,500.

Gail Martin, another Manhattan dealer, has an early-20th-century Bwami hat from the Lega people of Congo. Looking a bit like an artichoke, the hat is covered with the skin of a pangolin, a mammal with large, fishlike scales. The forehead band has rows of beads in red and white; its chinstrap, neat rows of red and white buttons.

"Such hats are rare because only higher members of society are allowed to use pangolin," Ms. Martin said.

She also has an early-20th-century woven-raffia chief's hat from the Ekonda people of Congo.

"It's like a high-rise with quadruple wraparound terraces," Ms. Martin said. "It has four brims." It also boasts a large round brass disk to emphasize the prominence of the wearer.

"The hat comes from an old collection," Ms. Martin said. "Authentic hats like this don't come up much anymore." Its price is $4,000.

Andres Moraga, a private dealer in Berkeley, Calif., has a man's ceremonial hat from the Bamileke kingdom in Cameroon. In black cloth with red stripes, the hat is embroidered in a basketweave pattern in turquoise blue and white glass beads. It almost looks contemporary.

Joel Cooner, a dealer from Dallas, is selling a money fur headdress used in a male initiation rite by the Gisu people of Uganda. Its headband is decorated with rows of cowrie shells, which were used both for decoration and as a monetary unit. The price is $3,800.

H. Malcolm Grimmer, a private dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., may have the oldest headdress in the show: a Lakota cap from about 1850 from the Northern Plains of America. "It looks a bit like a Viking cap, with a shaved buffalo horn coming out of each side," Mr. Grimmer said. "Strips of ermine are stitched onto the antelope-hide base. A militaristic olive-green and red cloth stripe runs down the center. It's very rare." So is the price: $65,000.

In may'04 New York Tribal & Textile Arts Show,. 7th Regiment Armory, Park at 67th St. Please go to the show organizers website at . 

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The Tribal Arts of Africa
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