Humans regard their heads with great reverence. Of all their parts, the head is the one they least wish to lose. After all, it houses the major organs of sense-data reception. It is covered by the face, which is said to be one's fortune. No wonder people have always taken such care in decorating their craniums.
Curiously enough, though, this practice is rarely the object of serious scholarly attention. Two current exhibitions at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History make a welcome exception.
"Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head" presents a kaleidoscopically varied array of about 150 hats, tracing the phenomenon from royal tribal tiaras to funky, contemporary pop-culture Rastafarian caps inspired by an ongoing fashion for Jamaican reggae.
They all prove that the utilitarian function of hats is far from their main job. They act to lend identity, confer authority and enhance prestige more often than they keep off sun and rain. Certainly one original purpose of male headdress was to make the wearer appear macho, magical and scary. A warrior's helmet from Sudan is made of chain mail. Authentically protective, it's also covered with pouches that no doubt were believed to have spiritual power.
Headdresses fashioned from animal horns, pelts and parts evoke the spirit of the beast. In a serious situation, one would be unlikely to get crossways with men wearing hats such as two Zairian examples, one that is decorated with a monkey's skull and another that evokes a rhino's lethal, phallic horn.
At the same time, there is something humorous about hats. Alice B. Toklas once said that a woman's chapeau was a failure if the men didn't think it was silly. In the '60s, Bob Dylan had fun writing a song satirizing his girl's brand-new leopard-skin pillbox hat. An example of the type is on view.
A chief's hat from the Kalabari Ijo people of Nigeria looks like a celebratory crescent of colored feathers and plastic mirrors more suitable to carnival abandon than sober leadership. But, we are informed, they take the symbolic function of hats to heart. There, the forehead is seen as the source of will and must not be touched casually. Doffing one's hat to the chief's peacock regalia is not just a sign of respect but of submission.
Maybe the real point of the hat's odd combination of ego-theater and oafishness is to assert that certain individuals must be feared and respected even when they look foolish.
A king's crown from the Yoruba people is the source of some very subtle social satire. Basically, it's a white skullcap intricately and beautifully beaded. During the colonial period, privileged Yoruba men got European educations and took to the professions, including law. They wore a version of those perfectly idiotic little white wigs sported by English barristers. The Yoruba version, however, was fashioned of the beaded white chief's cap surrounded by fake curls. It quietly said that the traditional spiritual values of the people transcend those of secular law.
Many of these works transcend themselves. A woman's headdress from the Herero of Botswana, fashioned of leather and sprouting three flamboyant, feather-shaped projections, is pure poetry.
Many of these designs are carved into dance masks that themselves become headdresses and sculptural masterpieces. "Coiffure Moderne: A Gallery of African Hair Styles 1970-1990" is an intrinsic coda to the larger show. It includes about 50 painted contemporary wooden barber salon signs from urban centers such as Abidjan and Libreville. Far livelier than the Euro-American barbershop pole, they have two levels of interest. Characteristically, they depict profile heads illustrating the inventive variety of haircuts available to dramatize a young coif. Styles have such pithy names as "Gentle Punk," "Cocaine" and "God's Gift." Women's cuts are clearly derived from traditional styles mixed with Western types.
The signs themselves are wonderfully guileless images that hover somewhere between folk art and popular art. One, advertising a salon called "Magic Hand Haircut," is a tour-de-force image of two handsome couples at the beach drinking Diet Pepsi while Donald Duck walks on the water.
Here is the timeless adolescent message that life is about having fun and being admired.
Curators for the exhibitions are Mary Jo Arnoldi and Christine Mullen Kreamer. An indispensable 185-page catalogue is available.
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 405 Hilgard Ave., (310) 825-4361), through July 16, closed Mondays and Tuesdays.