Posts Tagged ‘Emancipation Proclamation of 1863’

Books | Black American Dolls

Friday, June 5th, 2015

Male doll with large hands.
Artist unknown, circa 1920
Cotton / straw / string
This figure might have been intended to
the archetypal strong man

Black Dolls
From the collection of Deborah Neff
Edited by Frank Maresca
Published by Radius Books
+ the
Mingei International Museum
Clothbound + jacket,
232 pp / 140+ colour images / 30+ bw


Black Dolls
Mingei International Museum
San Diego | California | USA
Until 5 July 2015

Wide-eyed girl doll.
Artist unknown, late 19th century
Cotton / glass
The down-turned mouth embroidered with coarse
thread gives this doll an eerie presence

Unlike some commercially-produced dolls, that have the ability to speak, but say nothing of any significance, the dolls featured in this beautifully-designed book and exhibition, made by ordinary African Americans between 1850 and1930, and are all mute, but speak volumes.

Deborah Neff, from whose collection the 100+ unique, hand-crafted dolls are sourced, was attracted to African-American black dolls in particular because she recognised them as some of the best examples of the tradition of creating expressive dolls from found materials – scraps of cloth, leather, coconut shell, ribbon and lace, old socks, and anything else their makers were able to lay their hands on.

Boy doll with striped trousers.
Artist unknown, circa 1900 > 25
Mixed fabrics / mother of pearl / glass
This boy’s trousers, constructed from vertical
of colourful fabrics, bring to mind the Biblical
story of
Jacob and his coat of many colours

Female doll with red bonnet.
Artist unknown, late 19th or early 20th century
Leather / mixed fabrics / 
human hair / mother of pearl
The pristine condition of this doll suggests
it was not used as an object of play

Black dolls are believed to have been created by African Americans for the children in their lives, including those in their own families, as well as white children in their charge. Bearing in mind that, in a single stroke, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, freed around three to four million North American slaves, the earliest of these dolls are likely to have been produced by unknown individuals, who were still enslaved.

Cabinet Card (detail).
Photographer unknown, circa 1870 > 85
Burnham Studio, Norway, Maine

Topsy-turvy doll.
Artist unknown, circa 1920 > 30
This example was, apparently, never clothed

Photo postcard (detail).
Photographer unknown, circa 1904 > 18

Curious to know more about the origins of the dolls she collected, and hoping for deeper insight into the lives of African Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century period, Neff began researching contemporaneous photographs, and discovered some surprising images that revealed that while many black dolls belonged to white children, some white dolls, also appear to have been the playmates of black girls. A selection of these photographs forms an essential ingredient of both the publication and the show.

Female doll with puzzled expression.
Artist unknown, late 19th century
Mixed fabrics / animal fur / leather

The minimal black and white, topsy-turvy doll (above), of which the black and white portions are given identical treatment, can, at the flick of a wrist, be transformed from representing a black person, or a white person. Appearing to encapsulate the ideal of a multi-racial and democratic society, perhaps this particular doll was the product of a wishful thinker. Something of an anomaly, it has never been established whether topsy-turvy dolls were typically produced by white or black Americans.

Strange, mysterious – some of them naked, damaged, or ineptly repaired – these dolls’ faces, bodies, clothing and construction, combine to communicate intense emotions. Redolent of a turbulent, dark era in American history, they should perhaps be looked upon less as toys meant for the amusement of children, but rather as poignant reminders of the racial inequalities that persist in US society to this day.

All images courtesy Radius Books,
from Black Dolls, the book, and the
Black Dolls exhibition at Mingei
International Museum
. All dolls, from
the collection of Deborah Neff,
photographed by Ellen McDermott

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