Notebook

head & heart

[Source: Ethnic Jewelry, 1988]

"The siting of jewellery can also act to divide the body into zones, in addition to any capacity it has for expanding the associations of particular organs. The neck, for instance, is often an area of special attention. The massing of jewellery round the neck effects a striking visual - and thus, arguably, conceptual - separation of the head from the body. This is especially notable amongst some of the pastoralist peoples of East Africa, peoples such as the Maasai, Samburu, Turkana or Karimajong. Here it is often the practice for women to adorn the neck with beads sometimes numbering up to sixty and more strings and cover the whole area from the chin down to and over the top of the shoulders. The head, too, is often ornamented in some way, and armlets are common. The effect of numerous colourful strings of beads massed in the area of the neck is, however, visually dominant." 

"The beads of which such strings are composed are imported and have long been extensively traded throughout Eastern Africa. To that extent, as with so many traditions, adornment is often said to represent an investment in movable wealth. For men their herds of cattle and goats represent the sum of their worldly standing; for women it is bead necklaces, which are not put on for particular events but worn more or less all the time by those entitled to decorate in that manner." 

"No doubt it could be argued that the neck is the only place on the body for such bead necklaces to be conveniently carried, and in such societies, following a semi-nomadic or transhumant life, portability is of crucial importance. Yet beyond this practical consideration it is notable that many related people in this region make some distinction between the head and the heart. As elsewhere, the head is seen as the seat of the intellect, the heart of the emotions and metaphorically associated with many other essentially moral conditions. Reference to the heart expresses intentions, states of doubt or uncertainty, fear, envy, contentment, and so forth. It is interesting therefore that it should be the neck, a neutral zone, which is often elaborately adorned. The result is not to highlight it as of special significance in its own right, as has been the case in the other examples. At another level it acts rather to underline the distinctiveness of the associations of the head above the neck and of the heart beneath."

 Turkana old woman with labret, Kenya.   Photo credit:  Eric Lafforgue

Turkana old woman with labret, Kenya.

Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue