A pair of handmade Black dolls, a boy and girl playing cards, in the main room of the 42nd Annual Black Doll Show. (Olive Bieni/AfroLA)

Culture and magic align at Annual Black Doll Show

As a culture, it is safe to say that “baby dolls” hold a significance in our lives as we grow from childhood into adulthood. It goes without saying that there is something special about holding a doll that looks like you, with beautiful dark tresses, glowing brown skin and innocent, round eyes. Mine was a Black Cabbage Patch Kids doll, gifted to me by my grandma on a magical Christmas evening when I was 4 years old. Decades later, I can’t part with the beautiful memories that my doll has given me.

There’s something curious to a child about raising their doll and loving them the way they deserve to be loved. That’s why the 42nd Annual Black Doll Show struck a chord with me. The exhibition opened in December at the William Grant Still Arts Center in West Adams, and I attended the related doll making workshop in January. One of my biggest takeaways from the event for me was the simplicity of dollmaking. There’s more to dolls than the plastic and stuffing we know of Barbies and cloth baby dolls. Beautiful dolls can be created from everyday household items like cardboard and corks.

In the 19th century, Black caregivers sewed dolls for enslaved Black children who sought this kind of escape with dolls. The idea was to give them joy and the ability to imagine a world different from their own reality. These handmade dolls have been preserved as historical artifacts, pieces of our past worthy of being remembered. Creations like these gave way to future artistic genres, including the assemblage movement of the early 20th century.Artists like Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy piece together scavenged materials into three-dimensional art (unlike collage which is two-dimensional).  

It’s not about having fancy materials. Rather, it’s about the craft and bond you create with your doll. It’s about feeling connected to your ancestral roots. It’s about loving and accepting the parts of yourself that deserve praise as you look into the mirror.

Olive Bieni speaks with doll-making workshop participants at the 42nd Annual Black Doll Show.

The Annual Black Doll Show began in the 1980s in response to the “Doll Tests” referenced in the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. A decade before Brown, psychologists conducted a series of experiments during which Black children preferred white dolls over Black dolls. ”We did it to communicate…the influence of race and color and status on the self-esteem of children,” said psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark in a documentary interview. When Clark and his colleague conducted the Doll Tests, creamy-toned Barbies were the only option for little Black girls. The Doll Show—then and now—gives us the opportunity to stand in our power for our inner child. It creates a space to appreciate the craftsmanship and significance of Black dolls. I was personally reminded of this during an exchange with artist Patricia Shivers Taylor, who took note of my expressive eyes as I spoke to her; she told me that I had just given her an idea for the design for a new creation.

I wasn’t prepared for the self-reflection I experienced when I walked through the exhibition and interacted with workshop participants. These dolls are real and based upon the lived experiences of their artists. When we admire these dolls with reverence and tenderness, it begs the question why we sometimes can’t look at ourselves with the same delight. These dolls are made from parts of you and me. 

They’re created from the parts within us that others may have teased us for, like the curves, dark skin and full lips. (Ironically, so many non-Black women today are enamored with big butts, lip injections and dark tans.) Dolls were and are a chance to reclaim our own beauty by learning to care for ourselves the way that we care for others. We see them as beautiful, and with them made by us, we, too, are beautiful.

Walking into the arts center, I was greeted with smiling faces and several rooms whose walls displayed dark-skinned dolls and figurines of all kinds. Some were more commercial like Funko Pop! figurines or Barbies coveted by collectors while others were handmade from clay or cloth with thick yarn hair and bodies bound with twine. 

Five Black women pose for a group photo in front of wall with a quilt displayed.
(Left to right) Local doll artists Barbara Flemings, Teresa Tolliver, Patricia Shivers Taylor, Aiysha Sinclair and Heather Hilliard Bonds pose for a group picture on Jan. 6 at the William Grant Still Arts Center. (Olive Bieni/AfroLA)

This exhibition featured the work of many notable assemblage artists. The doll-making workshop on the center’s patio was led by a focused Teresa Tolliver, who instructed an eager group on how to bring a doll to life from simple items. Her teaching style was hands-on and personal. Walking around the space, I could feel the calm energy of people ready to learn and create something in their own image. It was a safe, judgement-free space that allowed creators to just be, something society often doesn’t afford Black people. 

At one of the stations was a shy 7-year-old girl, Suzanne King, with glowing brown skin and cute braids. She tried to mask her excitement that she was making her very own doll. But, I could tell there was a quiet glee stirring inside of her.

A Black girl makes a doll at a craft table, flanked by her mom and dad on either side.
Suzanne King, 7 (center), creates her doll while her parents, Alejandra (left) and William King, supervise. (Olive Bieni/AfroLA)

You must step back and recognize the significance of this moment, as I and many others can remember being that little girl, not seeing anybody who looked like us on TV or on store shelves. Representation simply wasn’t there. But, the exhibit showcased hundreds of dolls with kinky, curly hair like ours, our big, bright eyes and noses crafted with a love and magic that withstands the test of time. Spaces like these emphasize how important representation is, as it impacts how both kids and adults see the world. They let us know that we can be anybody and anything—that we’re unstoppable if we simply believe. And, this showcase gives us the permission to believe.

The 42nd Annual Doll Show runs through Feb. 18 at the William Grant Still Arts Center, 2520 S. West View St., Los Angeles, CA 90016, (323) 734-1165.

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