West Side Rag’ ‘Black Dolls’ opens at the New-York Historical Society Combining art, history and play
Posted on February 26, 2022 at 7:18 a.m. by West Side Rag
Photographs and text by Peggy Taylor
“If they had been given brushes, they could have become painters; if they had been given clay, they could have become sculptors; if they had been taught to read and write, they could have become writers. They were given leftover sewing baskets and with these they expressed their immense creativity.
This is how Dominique Jean-Louis, co-curator of the fascinating exhibition Black Dolls of the New-York Historical Society, describes the unknown and enslaved black women whose dolls are exhibited from February 25 to June 5, 2022.
The exhibit features 110 handmade dolls from Deborah Neff’s private collection. There are black dolls by slaves, black dolls by runaways, black dolls by black men, black dolls by white abolitionists, black dolls by white makers, black dolls by black makers, black dolls joined at the waist with white dolls, black dolls owned by white children, black dolls owned by black children, black dolls designed to promote self-esteem, and finally black dolls created by the mother of our former first lady, Chirlane McCray. Add to that dolls from novices and dolls from expert dollmakers, and you have a rich and varied display.
The exhibit follows the evolution of dolls through different periods of American history – slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights era and finally the 1990s. And throughout it all, we admire the ingenuity that went into their designs when women used scraps of fabric, ribbon and lace, or old socks, stuffed with wool, cotton or sawdust, to express themselves and the world that surrounds them.
But the exhibition does not stop at the dolls. The museum supplements the Neff collection with vintage photographs, textiles, books, games, sewing tools and furniture, which provide vital historical context and increase the number of exhibits to 200.
From a different collection are three dolls made by Harriet Jacobs, a runaway who made the dolls between 1850-1860 for the white children of the Willis family of New York, where she worked after her escape. In her autobiography published in 1861, she recounts her desperate escape from slavery and her years spent hiding in the attic of her aunt’s house where she used sewing to ease her loneliness and fear. A copy of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Jacobs is on view.
Three dolls of white abolitionist Cynthia Walker Hill stand out as they depict black men, including Frederick Douglass, and were sold to help support the abolitionist cause. Their motto: “May the points of our needles prick the conscience of the slave owner.”
Three 1930s dolls were made by Leo Moss, a black handyman from Macon, Georgia, who repurposed commercial white dolls by reshaping their hair, features and facial expressions and tinting their skin with boot dye until they resemble themselves, family members or neighbors.
Dolls that at first glance might appear to be stereotypes turn out to thwart the caricature when considering the skill in design, tailoring and craftsmanship lavished on their outfits. The dolls are very varied, representing boys and girls and men and women. As Neff once said, “You can see their diversity, their plurality, as a powerful response to a stereotype.”
Also on display are Addy Walker, the first black character American Girl created and added to her collection in 1993 to educate children about slavery and American emancipation. Addy’s braided hair and West African cowrie necklace reflect black culture, with the cowrie having belonged to her African-born great-great-great-grandmother. Addy comes with her very own fabric doll, Ida Bean, and a quilt inspired by an 1854 family album quilt by black quilter Sarah Ann Wilson.
The exhibition ends with a slideshow featuring contemporary doll collectors, including artist Betye Saar, as black doll collectors continue to forge communities, both in person and online, to celebrate their interest. common.
Black Dolls is organized by Margi Hofer, vice-president and director of the museum, and Dominique Jean-Louis, associate curator.