This delightful headrest incorporating the figure of an elephant is unusual in both its representation and large size. It derives from a Tsonga aesthetic tradition of carving headrests with animal figures. Widely used by Tsonga cattle herders before the turn of the century, these headrests were portable and functional personal objects meant to protect elaborate hairstyles.
The size of this headrest, the expression on the elephant's face, and the lack of signs of use suggest it might have been produced for sale to Europeans. Only two other comparable headrests exist; both are in the Rijksmuseum in Holland. So close in style are the three headrests that it seems possible that they were produced by the same hand or workshop. Rogier Bedaux, curator of African Collections at the Rijksmuseum, states that the headrests in their collection originated in Marabastad, in the northwest Transvaal region of South Africa, and were collected before 1890. If it had been produced for an outside market, this headrest would be a remarkably early example of "tourist" art.