A married woman must wear a head wrap, or gèlè, in order to feel fully and properly dressed. The manner in which she wraps her gèlè is a personal creative expression. With each wearing, the seven-foot length of cloth is folded, pleated, pinched, tucked, and spread into a new form. Re-tying the wrap each time allows a woman to keep up with fashion, create appropriate wraps for different social occasions, and express her personal aesthetic. Because the inner head is seen as the center of individuality and spirituality, a beautifully adorned head honors the sacred self. In fact the hair, which is completely covered by the gèlè, is equally elaborately dressed.
This piece was given to the museum by Mrs. Calvin W. Stillman. Her husband, Dr. Calvin W. Stillman (d. 2013) was the organizer of the symposium Africa in the Modern World and editor of the book of the same name (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955). The symposium convened sixteen social scientists from five nations to discuss the contemporary African political and economic landscape, and its bearing on U.S. foreign policy; many contributed to the book that followed in 1955. In 1956, the Journal of Negro History called it “one of the most up-to-date and authoritative collections of materials on Africa to be found in any single short volume.” The Stillmans traveled together around central and west Africa in the 1950s, and Mrs. Stillman donated a number of Asante, Akwete, Yoruba, and Kano textiles to the museum’s collection.
This head wrap is on view in the exhibition David Adjaye Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection, along with thirteen other pieces from the museum’s African textile collection.
Susan Brown is Associate Curator in the Textiles Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.