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Visual Arts & Exhibitions
Feb. 2 – May 3, 6 to 8 p.m.
Sargent Johnson Gallery, first floor
The Sargent Johnson Gallery presents a doll exhibition that addresses a need to celebrate the diversity and beauty of African American and African people and their experience, manifested in dolls. Curated by Nashormeh Lindo, this exhibition serves as a response to the underrepresentation of positive images reflective of the black experience in the mainstream toy and doll industry.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: It had been a while since my mother and I had been regular fixtures around the African American Art and Culture Complex. She’d been ill, and had become in need of mobility equipment and various kinds of care, but on this day in April, she was feeling well enough to travel, and we were down at the Center to visit the San Francisco African American Art and Culture Complex for one of the meetings. My mom had been attending meetings to help plan for the February black history programs, and then because she’d become ill she wasn’t able to come around for a while. When we came through, the meeting had been rescheduled, so we spoked to the people who were in the building involved with other organizations, and we visited the Dolls Exhibit at the Sergeant Gallery.
The Exhibit was interesting because it contrasted modern depictions of African Americans – and especially African American
women and girls – in the form of dolls, with older, more traditional forms (such as the doll I am posing with in the photo above). We noticed a few cards explaining what some of the exhibited pieces were but the collected dolls largely spoke for themselves: they drew a line from the past through to the present, with a few stops along the way. In America, African American versions of popular dolls began to be offered alongside their white mainstream counterparts as early as 1910. When I was a kid, in the 70s, offering an African American version of the mainstream dolls such as Barbie or Baby Alive was common, although these dolls generally did not have any kind of African features. They were merely darker skinned versions of the regular doll. That’s no suprise if you know that the first Black Barbie came out in 1964, a mere 4 years before I was born.
The exhibit showed both these kinds of mass-market dolls, and home made children’s toys of a more unique design created in a variety of places. African heritage dolls of mainstream manufacture in Europe predated African heritage manufactured dolls by a good 50 years – the ordered, porcelain type. Home made dolls such as rag dolls predated those by hundreds of years, thousands really, going back into ancient history. The history of the black doll in America – the African American doll – is marred by years of stereotypical dolls we now consider racist such as the Sambo dolls, but in the late 1940s, African American cartoonist Jackie Ormes created a cute, plastic baby doll called the Patti-Jo doll – the predecessor of the uniquely African American, non-stereotypical dolls that we would eventually see made for African American children. When I was a kid in the 70s, most black dolls looked identical to white dolls, but by the 1980s, they began following in Patti-Jo’s footsteps, that is to say, they were unique characters. http://www.jackieormes.com/pattyjo.php