The taking of snuff was ubiquitous in traditional South African societies, featuring in lively community gatherings and gift-giving, and aiding communication with the ancestors. Snuff paraphernalia naturally proliferated in the form of containers of various sizes and materials, as well as elegantly crafted spoons. Zulu snuff spoons were frequently carved from the rib bones of oxen or cows and decorated with incised and punched designs blackened with fat and ash. They were used to draw snuff from a container or to remove sweat from the brow.
This kit of delicate items was habitually carried on one’s person, and the ingenuity of South African artists inspired creative solutions for keeping the oft-used tools conveniently close at hand. Many nineteenth-century photographs show Zulu men wearing spoons in their hair or through an earlobe, which the spoons’ shapes were designed to accommodate.
The present spoon is of the comb type, intended to be worn in the hair as an accessory when not in use. Its unusual double-bowled design shows imagination in both utility and representation. With a silhouette that strongly suggests an abstract human form in profile, it can be read as a standing figure with arched back and exaggerated buttocks, or as a pregnant woman.