Category Archives: African Comb

Plumes: The Creative Museum at the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie

In its second collaboration with the Museum of African and Asian Arts in Vichy, The Creative Museum has been invited to participate in the exhibition, PLUMES.

Human fascination with birds begins when their freedom of flight captures our imaginations. We watch birds soar and glide freely, as their beautiful, feathered wings catch gusts of air. Can we explore birds’ connection to the human soul in other cultures?

The exhibition PLUMES investigates five civilizations: India, China, the Ivory Coast, Papua New Guinea, and North America to show how art reflects human reverence for each culture’s emblematic bird.

Click on the image to go to the exhibition

From India: The peacock is India’s national bird and holds an important place in Hindu epic poetry and mythology. In Rajasthan’s miniature paintings, peacocks provide companionship to wistful nayikas. They are heroines in the Natya Shastra, written by Bharata, c. 100 BC. The Creative Museum’s silver-gilded comb comes from Rajasthan. The well contains perfume, which drips into the user’s hair, and is adorned with two peacocks.

From China: Tian Tsui is the art of cutting and gluing the kingfisher bird’s iridescent blue feathers to gilt silver. The feathers are so small, it is a painstaking task. The term literally means “dotting with kingfishers” and has been a traditional Chinese art for 2000 years. The Creative Museum’s magnificent diadem uses tian tsui. The flowers are topped with three symbolic child figures with painted bone faces.

From the Ivory Coast: The hornbill kaloa bird is the mythological founder of the Senoufo people. One opportunity for young tribal men is to join the Poro Society, a school where most carvings and masks are made. Statues combine human and animal elements. The bird’s horned beak is elongated, as it touches the fertilized, swollen belly. This comb from The Creative Museum shows the beak-belly relationship, as a man wears a kaloa-bird mask, perhaps for an initiation ceremony.

From Papua New Guinea: The Dani People from the Highlands have a fable. Once, a snake and a bird engaged in a great race to decide the fate of human beings. If the snake won, men would shed their skins and live forever. If the bird won, men must die. The bird won. The Creative Museum’s male headdress from the Dani is made of cassowary bone and feathers, crocodile claws, and warthog teeth. It was most likely worn by a warrior.

From North America: The Tlingit are an indigenous tribe who live along the Pacific Northwest coast: now Oregon and Washington in the USA; British Columbia in Canada. Modern-day Tlingit also live in Alaska. Before Christian conversion, they were animists. Their totem poles narrated stories, legends, and myths. The Tlingit have raven clans and eagle/wolf clans. As the eagle’s beak is curved, The Creative Museum’s bone hair pin with a totem pole eye probably belonged to an eagle-clan shaman.

With these five distinct cultural interpretations, The Creative Museum’s contribution to the Plumes exhibit at the Museum of African and Asian Arts in Vichy shows how bird mythology lives on in headdresses around the world.


For more scholarly research, please examine our Resource Library and The Creative Museum’s publications and these books:

Kingfisher Blue: Treasures of an Ancient Chinese Art

Powerful Headdresses: Africa and Asia

Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment

AMNH Collection: Mangbetu Ivory Combs of the Belgian Congo

Ivory hair combs for the American Museum of Natural History were collected on a cultural expedition by Herbert Lang and James P. Chapin from 1909 to 1915.

James Chapin and a child, name unknown

They were made by the Mangbetu people, who lived in Panga and Medge, small villages in King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which became the Belgian Congo in 1908. The Mangbetu were known for Lipombo’, the art of elongating heads, as this comb shows.

This comb features a grey crowned crane.

The Mangbetu were featured prominently in early photographs distributed to show Europeans how well people were doing under Leopold’s rule. The photographs, taken against false backgrounds and made into postcards, were propaganda to sell the mass quantities of ivory and rubber brought in on Belgian cargo ships. They also hid the fact that Leopold had turned the entire country into a slave labor camp, which killed 10,000,000 people.

Lang and Chapin’s field notes state that combs were made by men and often worn by women in the hollow of their hair dress, which can be seen from the back.

However, ivory hairpins are the most visible ornament in Mangbetu hair styles. These were collected from the Lang and Chapin expedition:

This lot of 17 hairpins sold at Sotheby’s for 8,400€ on September 7, 2013,

and this is how they were worn:

First picture: Warrior, Poko region, Congo, 1945


If you would like to buy a contemporary Mangbetu wood comb, I am confident in recommending


For more scholarly research please examine the AMNH Collection and these books

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

African Reflections: Mangbetu Art

In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960

Hairdressing as Language: Exhibit at the Musée Dapper

The Musée Dapper in Paris was realized by the efforts of the Olfert Dapper Foundation. Dapper was a Dutch historian whose most famous book, Description of Africa (1688), wove geography, economics, politics, medicine, social life and customs. Free of ethnocentric judgments, it remains an indispensable resource for historians.

The museum’s current exhibition, “Initiés, Bassin du Congo,” features 100 works that explore the link between hairdressing in traditional African societies and initiation rites, such as birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. Jean- Paul Notué writes the exhibition catalog, “A hairstyle is an act of socialization and metamorphosis that permits a person to relay their history, social rank, and cultural identity.”

The works on display are architectural, strong, and iconic — an expression of tribal identities that have endured war, political upheaval, and commercialism. You can see many of the museum’s headdresses in this video.

This dramatic headdress belongs to the Lega People, one of the ethnic groups of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cap was made from fibers of human hair, with a shell decoration in the middle, and buttons decorating the front and strap.

This crest mask is from the Ejagham tribe of Northern Cameroon. Made of one piece of wood, the mask also uses untanned antelope skin, straw, and pigments. It is dated 1928 and was borrowed from the State Museum for Ethnology in Munich.

There is also an installation by contemporary German-Kenyan artist Ingrid Mwangi, who says, “Our own soul immediately plunges the viewer into the heart of the matter: the meaningful content of the hairstyle.”


For more scholarly research, please examine our Resource Library and these books:

Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment

African Masks: From the Barbier-Mueller Collection

Powerful Headdresses: Africa and Asia

Samburu Jewelry, Rebecca Lolosoli, and Half the Sky

In the Samburu district of Kenya, near Archers Post, lies a village of women’s dignity – Umoja. It is a refuge for victims of domestic violence.

Normally pastoral cattle herders, Samburu matriarch Rebecca Lolosoli has started a business to make the complex beaded necklaces and headdresses for which the tribe is known. The Samburu knit with small, brightly colored beads, weaving complex patterns and ideas in layers. Round silver coin-like beads are attached to the headdresses, as are larger center ornaments. Ms. Lolosoli’s jewelry showcases the highest level of skill.

With jewelry, she and her village are fighting for the right to be untouched by violence. Umoja is part of Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky Movement. A woman has a right to an education; own a business; make decisions; and not be raped, shot, or promised into marriage as a child. Ms. Lolosoli also fights female circumcision. Instead of growing older with eyes that have seen untold horrors, in Umoja, a young woman can glow with pride.


For more on Umoja and Half the Sky, please examine Umoja Women and

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Eyes Open: Tribal Combs and Masks

When light or wind passes through, the open eyes of a mask can haunt you. Ancestral spirits look back. I wanted to show some tribal combs and masks, whose open designs allow this emotional exchange to happen.

From The Creative Museum‘s African collection come these examples:

These three 20th Century hairpins with masks are ivory. They were made by the Zande people who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Zande also inhabit portions of South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

In Angola, the Ganguela are a small minority ethnic group made up of several tribes, each with their own language and social identity. The Lwimbi tribe is one of these. They are known for beekeeping and making pointed masks with open designs.

The Boa people live in the Northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their art features masks with prominent, round ears, which signify alertness in a warrior. The first comb has a representational head with red eyes and round ears. However, the second comb is more symbolic. Both the head and ears are round circles, and the ears are at arms length to give balance to the piece. I don’t think a Western modern artist could have done better.

The Baule tribe is one of the Akan peoples, who inhabit Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Their religion is centered around ancestor worship and nature gods.

These two masks are from the Gina Hellweger Collection. “This mask is an Ogoni Animal Mask from Nigeria. The Ogoni people live to the east of the Niger delta. They have retained a vital varied masquerading activity that is in part deeply rooted in their own tradition and in part adopted from neighboring ethnic groups, such as the Ibibio or Ijo tribes. Masks depciting wild animals are danced on the occasion of agrarian rituals.

“This mask is an old one from the Bambara people that live in central and southern Mali.”

Last, from the Bruce Frank Art Gallery comes this antique mask from Pora Pora in the East Sepik Provence of Papua New Guinea. This is the most haunting mask I have seen yet. It is made from terra cotta, has an elongated nose, and is pierced for attachment.


For more scholarly research, please examine these books, which can be found in our Resource Library.

Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment

Hair in African Art and Culture

Powerful Headdresses: Africa and Asia

The Nuba People of Sudan

In 1974-’76, Leni Riefenstahl published portraits of the Nuba people in two books: Africa, which was about the Mesakin Nuba, and the People of Kau, which featured the South East Nuba 100 miles away.

In the mid-70’s, the Nuba’s artistic adornment included tattoos and complex geometric designs. A man or woman could chose one color or line to decorate themselves, as well. Hair was matted with clay, braided, and topped with feathered headdresses and/or beaded bandeaus. Women also wore clay beads at the bottom of braided hairstyles. Necklaces and armbands were also an essential part of Nuba attire.

This is what their villages looked like:

In the 1990’s, genocide came to Sudan, and the Nuba looked like this:

On July 1, 2011, the world recognized South Sudan, a country with a majority of Christians, whose borders could now be protected from the imposition of Muslim sharia law in the North. The Nuba desperately wanted to be part of the South.

Their Muslim, Christian, and shamanistic tribe members lived peacefully and exchanged ideas. However, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir started to bomb South Kordofan, where the Nuba Mountains lie. Crimes against humanity ensued. The people fled. As Nicholas Kristof reports, some had the guts to fight back.

One of the places they sought refuge was Israel. The African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv was formed to integrate African asylum seekers into Israeli society. However, the Israeli Ministry of Information frequently revokes Nuba permits because of a geographical misunderstanding.

What kind of jewelry do the Nuba make now?

The Creative Museum World Tour

Another blog wrote about them: Le Blog de Cameline! She tells the story of the family in French. This post will be an English translation, and then I will pick some of my favorite combs from this magnificent collection, so we can enjoy both posts.

Cameline says, “The Creative Museum is a virtual museum devoted to hair ornaments.

Its history began 100 years ago, when Little Leona accompanied her military husband around the world. As she traveled, she collected treasures, which she kept in a shoe box. Upon her death, her grandchildren found the box. Wonder and passion was instantly exchanged through the generations.”

It was a moment that changed the family’s life forever. The grandchildren — thinking out of the box? (don’t kill me you guys :-) — collected over 2500 hair ornaments from all over the world and became scholars on their history. Chosen with a great eye, bought with bargaining acumen, written about beautifully, and photographed brilliantly, this collection is documented online for the world to see.

It has made its way into real museums, and the site is famous for its virtual exhibitions. The value of Leona’s passion has been realized. I cannot help but think of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest poets, who hid her genius in a trunk, too, until her family opened it and had an epiphany.

Cameline chose her favorite pieces from The Creative Museum, so I encourage everyone to read her post. But here are a few of mine:

This bearded mask wears a traditional bird comb, a symbol of fertility. From the Kpeliye Brotherhood of the Senufo people, they are worn at the Royal Court. It comes from the Ivory Coast, c. 1950.

This tortoiseshell hairpin features a claw from a bird of prey. It is from North America.

This Afghan barrette dangles pendants below red and green gemstones. c. 1940.

Two phoenixes face each other in this 19th Century Chinese jade comb.

English Art Nouveau jewelers made this brass woman with flowers instead of feet and a crescent on her head.

In Japan, they loved ravens. The Meiji style has the drawing fold over to the back of the kushi.

Swedish silversmiths were well known for their Minimalist style, as in this wedding tiara with pearls and tourmalines designed by Ulf Sandberg of Göteborg.

When celluloid was invented in 1862, comb-making machines lowered the cost of production considerably. In France, the industry center was in Oyonnax. Innovative design thrived with the flexibility new plastics and speed of production. This hand-painted daisy comb is a prime example of a comb made between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods.

Completing our world tour is a stop in New Guinea, where ancestor worship was predominant in the culture. From the Keram River area in a Kambot village comes this bamboo hair pin.


For more scholarly research, please examine the publications of the Creative Museum, as well as these books, which can be found in our Resource Library.

The Comb: Its History and Development

Le Peigne Dans Le Monde


Hemba Combs of the Congo

The Luba Empire was a pre-colonial Central African state, which was founded by King Kongolo Maniema, c. 1585. The Hemba people were incorporated because they started to migrate into Luba territory at the beginning of the Empire. In addition to being artistically influenced by the Luba, the Hemba endured kidnappings by Arab raiders for the the transatlantic slave trade.

The Luba government lasted until 1885, when King Leopold II of Belgium acquired the land as his personal property. Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr. Livingston, I presume.”) discovered of a river network connecting East and West Africa.

Under the direction of King Leopold II, Stanley used his map to bring Belgian soldiers to African Chiefs. False treaties tricked them into signing over their power and land to the King, who then proclaimed the Congo Free State, the first European colony owned by only one man. First, Leopold wanted ivory. Joseph Conrad documented the brutality of this slave labor, as well as explored what allows man to commit undiluted evil, in “Heart of Darkness.”

In 1898, the Goodyear factory in Akron, Ohio, made the first inflatable bicycle tire. In 1903, they started making car tires for Henry Ford. No one had more rubber than Leopold, for vines overflowing with sap grew wild in the Congo’s rain forest.

Forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address (1863), Belgian conscripts took women hostage; raped and starved them; and made their husbands meet immense quotas for collecting rubber to secure their release, so the Goodyear factory in Ohio could pay Leopold immense sums of money.

Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia.

Leopold’s treatment of slaves and prisoners was so brutal, rebellions, journalism, and a letter from George Washington Williams forced him to give up private ownership of the colony.

In 1908, the land was renamed the Belgian Congo. By 1920, two-thirds of the population had died. In 1960, the people gained independence and live in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo

From the African collection of The Creative Museum, a Hemba artist made this comb before 1960. It shows a man, either prisoner or slave, being held naked, with his hands tied behind his back and whip marks on his chest. It is an artifact of Leopold’s heart of darkness, his crimes against humanity.

In the 1970’s, the Hemba artists were able to express their strongly held beliefs in ancestor worship and fertility, traditional themes of African comb making.

And in this final, beautiful example, a couple embraces — at last.


For more scholarly research, please see The Creative Museum’s exhibit on African combs.

Creative Museum: Tuareg Jewelry Worn by a Wodaabe Woman

by The Creative Museum:

Parmi les peuples de la savane africaine, les Peuls, appelés aussi
Fulanis, se font remarquer par la finesse de leurs traits. Les hommes
comme les femmes attachent beaucoup d’importance à leur aspect physique
qu’ils entretiennent avec le plus grand soin. Ils utilisent de nombreux
accessoires de beauté trouvés sur les marchés, au hasard de leurs
déplacements. Les bijoux des artisans Touaregs sont très prisés car ils
sont du plus bel effet dans leur chevelure. Sur la photo, une femme
Peule (du groupe des Wodaabe) a placé en arrière de son chignon frontal
une superbe épingle traditionnelle en argent ciselé. Découvrez aussi les
épingles collectées par Creative Museum.


Pour plus d’informations, suivre les liens suivants :

The Creative Museum’s magnificent collection of African combs and these resources:

Tuareg Jewelry

Music of the Tuareg

Wodaabe Beauty Competition

Creative Museum: Fulani Hair Ornaments and Jewelry

The complexity and symbolism of Fulani coiffures, hair ornaments, jewelry, clothing, and tatoos reflect their history as a conquering people. They have 4 castes: noblemen, merchants, blacksmiths, and slaves.

Before the Europeans arrived, powerful empires ruled the African Savannah for over a thousand years. They were fueled by gold mines. In the 13th Century, the Empire of Mali (the Fulani people) conquered Ghana and created lavish royal courts. Timbuktu linked trade routes between the Arab lands in the North and tribal lands in the East and West. The result was a vibrant exchange of ideas, which made Mali a center of Islamic learning.

As the Fulani spread Islam across Africa, they enfolded a vast array of tribes into their culture. Not only was religion important, but tribes expressed their identity, wealth, status, and fertility in physical and ornamental beauty.

Felix Dubois, who traveled to Timbuktu in 1897, wrote, “I prefer to speak of the women of the city, that is to say, those of its aristocratic families… Their foreheads are charmingly adorned with bands of pearls and sequins, and the most accomplished hairdressers arrange their tresses in wonderful top-knots interspersed with ornaments of golden filigree. Earrings of the same precious metal dangle from their ears…”

The Creative Museum has added some Fulani braid ornaments to their collection.


For more scholarly research, please examine

The Creative Museum’s online exhibition on African combs, Facing Me, Facing You — and these books.

Africa Adorned

Hair in African Art and Culture

A World of Head Adornment

If you are inspired to wear some beautiful Fulani jewelry, I recommend the 24-carat-gold-plated seed pod earrings and cuff bracelet in the National Geographic store.