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40 Years Later, Why a Black Doll Show Still Resonates

A knit Sherice doll by Adrienne Franklin. | Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center
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Learn more about the history of Black doll making on the "Lost LA" episode "Shindana Toy Company - Changing the American Doll Industry."
S4 E6: Shindana Toy Company - Changing the American Doll Industry

During a year when dressing down has become the norm, "All Dolled Up," the theme of the William Grant Still Arts Center's "2020 Black Doll Show," couldn't be more ironic. Taking place exclusively online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 40-year celebration of the annual event will run until Feb. 20, 2021 in three parts — "Getting Dolled Up," "Going to the Club" and "The Gala" — activities largely off-limits to the public during the pandemic. 

In toyland, though, there are no restrictions; the dolls can get dressed up and celebrate the show's milestone anniversary, said Amitis Motevalli, director of the William Grant Still Arts Center, a facility of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.

"It's a celebration of all of the work of the community members that came together all these years to make sure [the show] happened," Motevalli said. "And it's a celebration of this genre of art-making and a good opportunity to just celebrate life. We can get dressed up sometimes, but we can't really go out. But our dolls can, so we can put them in different scenarios, like they're going to the club. It's a nice opportunity to escape our current situation and go into a fantasy world with our dolls." The show's website launched Dec. 12 and, like a magazine, allows the online audience to see the various exhibitions, said Motevalli.

Started in 1980 by the Friends of William Grant Still Arts Center, the Black Doll Show is the city's longest-running exhibition of Black dolls. Since the show's inception, the art it featured has affirmed Black identity or reminded viewers of the harmful stereotypes that misrepresented African American life. The intent has always been to use dolls to examine the complexities of being Black, and from there, to work toward healing. 

Artist Teresa Tolliver and her installation at a William Grant Still Art Center Black Doll Show, circa 87-90 | Bobbie Campbell, Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center
Artist Teresa Tolliver and her installation at a William Grant Still Art Center Black Doll Show, circa 87-90 | Bobbie Campbell, Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center

Art curator Cecil Fergerson, who died in 2013, organized the inaugural Black Doll Show four decades ago. He and his wife, Miriam, got the idea to begin the show after learning about the 1940s research of psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark, who found that Black children preferred white dolls to Black dolls. Just as worrisome was that the children associated the white dolls with positive traits and the Black dolls with negative traits reinforced from living in a segregated and anti-Black society. The Doll Test, which also included research contributions from Clark's psychologist husband, Kenneth Clark, suggested that Black children needed to see more representations of themselves in American culture. The research was cited in the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education that struck down segregation in public schools. It reportedly marked the first time a high court case cited social science research, and the Clarks' work continues to be heavily referenced today. 

A painting of a Black doll by Aisebourne | Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center
A painting of two Black dolls by Aisebourne | Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center

To launch the first exhibition, the Fergersons reached out to artists who were part of Los Angeles' assemblage movement. The couple told the artists, "Make a doll and reinterpret the notion of dolls, reinterpret our identity, and let's do this show," according to Motevalli. "And it was mostly artwork. It was mostly assemblage art, and some Black dolls that were historic." 

That first exhibition attracted people interested in doll-collecting, artwork, dolls used for religious purposes and the psychological impact of dolls on the public. "It was a big hit," said Motevalli. Because of its success, the Friends of the William Grant Still Arts Center decided to continue the show year after year, bringing dollmakers of all kinds together in the same venue. 

John Outterbridge and artwork at a William Grant Still Art Center Black Doll Show in the late 80s. | Bobbie Campbell, Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center
John Outterbridge and artwork at a William Grant Still Art Center Black Doll Show in the late 80s. | Bobbie Campbell, Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center

Seeing an all-Black doll exhibition is a moving experience, Motevalli said, particularly for African American children who take in the sight in awe. "At first, when you look at them, you're like, 'Oh, how cute, dolls!'" she said. "And then when you spend time in a room that is filled with dolls, Black dolls in many shades, you psychologically feel different in that space. I'm an Iranian woman, and I psychologically felt different. I was like, 'Wow, this is actually a super important show.'"   

A knit Sherice doll by Adrienne Franklin. | Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center
A knit Sherice doll by Adrienne Franklin. | Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center

This year's show is a commemorative affair; it will reflect on the event's four-decade history of presenting an array of Black dolls made from materials such as wood, cloth, fabric, metal, clay, paper, porcelain and even corn husks. The show has featured manufactured dolls, rag dolls, assemblage dolls and baby dolls, as well as dolls that embody certain themes — from fantasy and mythology to Afrofuturism and Black liberation. This year's show will include a collection of dolls from the now-defunct Shindana Toys, a Black-owned and South L.A.-based company that in 1968 released its Baby Nancy doll, which had distinctly African American features.

The Baby Nancy doll produced by Shindana Toys. This doll is now in Billie Green's collection. | Still from "Lost LA" Shindana Toys
The Baby Nancy doll produced by Shindana Toys. This doll is now in Billie Green's collection. | Still from "Lost LA" Shindana Toys

With influences ranging from Japanese anime to West African lore, artist Adah Glenn has taken part in the doll show for roughly 15 years. She will lead a virtual Dec. 19 workshop related to doll-making, while artists Nawili Gray and Alek Tabu will lead virtual workshops on Jan. 16 and Feb. 13, respectively. Among other works, Glenn's mermaid doll, inspired by the Yoruba deity Yemaya will be on display at the show.

Click through below to see more works by Adah Glenn featuring Black figures.

Adah Glenn’s mermaid doll, inspired by the Yoruba deity, Yemaya. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn and William Grant Still Art Center
1/5 Adah Glenn’s mermaid doll, inspired by the Yoruba deity, Yemaya. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn and William Grant Still Art Center
An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn
2/5 An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn
An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn
3/5 An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn
An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure among the clouds. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn
4/5 An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure among the clouds. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn
An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure among pastel shades. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn
5/5 An artwork by Adah Glenn featuring a Black female figure among pastel shades. | Courtesy of Adah Glenn

"Mermaid lore has really got its hook in me," she said. "And this one specifically is a Yemaya doll. She has black cloth fabric and shells. Her tail isn't scale material; it's a kind of a kente cloth print. She definitely is a Yemaya, Mami Wata doll." 

Mami Wata is a water spirit celebrated all over the African continent. The mermaid-like deity highlights African lore about this legendary sea creature, which in American popular culture is typically characterized as white. Glenn will also use the show to draw attention to the work of her late mentor Dorothy Taylor who embellished quilt patches with doll faces. Glenn has selected six pieces from that collection to feature at the show and will present a few of Taylor's masks inspired by the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration.

A Dolls of Hope doll making workshop (which partners with the Black Doll Show) in 2013 where templates of Black dolls were used to make dolls to send to children in orphanages who have lost their parents to AIDS. | Amitis Motevalli
A Dolls of Hope doll-making workshop (which partners with the Black Doll Show) in 2013 where templates of Black dolls were used to make dolls to send to children in orphanages who have lost their parents to AIDS. | Amitis Motevalli

Taking part in a virtual exhibition will be an adjustment for many regular patrons, even for Glenn, who describes the previous in-person shows as a colorful and tactile experience. Although touching the dolls is discouraged, typically, visitors can't resist reaching out and feeling them, she said. Glenn's not sure who usually appears to be the most excited at the event, as both the children and senior citizens who attend look equally thrilled. Still, the hope is that while virtual, the show will continue to appeal on a visceral level. "I think the best aspect of it is that it appeals to people of all ages, the kids as well the adults and the collectors who have a lifelong appreciation for doll work and toys," she said.

Top Image: A knit Sherice doll by Adrienne Franklin. | Courtesy of William Grant Still Art Center

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