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5 minutes with... A carved-wood headrest by the Master of the Cascade Coiffure

Specialist Bruno Claessens introduces a fascinating object carved by one of the most important African artists of the 19th century, offered in our 15 December Paris sale

At the end of the 19th century, explains specialist Bruno Claessens, the ‘cascade coiffure’ hairstyle was the height of fashion for Luba-Shankadi women, in what is today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ‘Signifying beauty and social status, the complex style took more than 50 hours to complete — although it could be preserved for up to three months if the wearer slept on a raised headrest’.

Offered in our 15 December sale in Paris, this ‘spectacular’ 19th-century carved-wood headrest was created by one of the most important African artists of the pre-colonial era, whose sculptural impressions of the popular hairstyle led African art scholar William Fagg to describe him as the Master of the Cascade Coiffure. This headrest is supported by two embracing figures, forming what is known as a ‘double caryatid’ base. 

Luba-Shankadi headrest, Democratic Republic of Congo. Wood. Height 17.5 cm; length 17.2 cm. Estimate €500,000-800,000. This lot is offered in Aristide Courtois, Charles Ratton At the Heart of the Madeleine Meunier Collection on 15 December 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

Luba-Shankadi headrest, Democratic Republic of Congo. Wood. Height 17.5 cm; length 17.2 cm. Estimate: €500,000-800,000. This lot is offered in Aristide Courtois, Charles Ratton: At the Heart of the Madeleine Meunier Collection on 15 December 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

Today, 16 headrests by this highly sought-after artist are known to survive, the majority in museum collections. Of these, just four — including the present example — feature a double caryatid base. For Claessens, the ‘inventive’ positions of the figures in this headrest lend it a sense of dynamism, emphasised by a use of negative space rarely seen in works made in the region at this time.

‘The virtuosity of his work has always been highly valued, both by its original, noble users, and by later Western owners including Charles Ratton — the 20th century’s pre-eminent expert in African art,’ says Claessens. Although Ratton sold two other works by this carver, he held on to this example, which featured in Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s provocative 1953 film, Statues Also Die (Les statues meurent aussi). It has remained in the collection of Madeleine Meunier, Ratton’s wife, since 1963. 

Video: Statues Also Die (Alain Renai & Chris Marker, 1953)

Occasionally referred to as ‘a support of dreams’, this headrest, experts have suggested, might feature figures as forms of protection, intended to safeguard the user at night. Now, concludes Claessens, this ‘precious object’ can support the dreams of a new owner.