For a long time, Black dolls were often used by a white supremacist society to reinforce negative stereotypes about Black people, so artists who create Black dolls have a significance that surpasses mere craft.

Running through March 3, 2024, at City Lore, the exhibition “The Calling: The Transformative Power of African-American Doll and Puppet Making” takes a distinctly diasporic approach, the exhibition brings together the work of 26 folkloric artists.

According to the exhibition’s lead consultant and editor Phyllis May-Machunda, in the accompanying exhibition book, “This exhibition frames a story of women and men from across the African Diaspora who have extended the skills of sewing and other aesthetic craft traditions to create a continuum of handmade dolls and puppets ranging from toys and objects supporting children’s play and community education, to fine art for display and sale.” 

Most of the artists knew each other for many years, calling themselves “A community of doll makers,” which made it easier to assemble them for the exhibition.

The Amsterdam News spoke about the exhibition with Camila Bryce-Laporte, exhibition curator and doll maker, and folklorist; Laura Gadson, visual artist, quilter, doll artist, and gallery owner, and Naomi Sturm-Wijesinghe, City Lore Creative Traditions Program director.

Bryce-Laporte worked on children, cultural, and educational programming for the Children’s Television Network and CBS Cable, and as a folklorist at the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. Gadson, with fellow exhibitor Shimoda Donna Emmanuel, also runs the organization Harlem Aesthetic, which hosts boutique salons several times a year showcasing the work of Black artists and artisans.

The doll and puppet makers were interviewed, said Sturm-Wijesinghe, “to understand what calls them to do this work. As with any folk art, it’s not necessarily something you go to school to learn.” 

Said Bryce-Laporte, “These artists could be doing any art, generally speaking, but there’s something about doing this type of figurative art, where you have to start thinking about your history, and your culture.”

The exhibition is organized in several distinct sections: Pre-Slave Trade Africa, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Slavery through Reconstruction, The Great Migration, The Civil Rights Movement, and The Post-Civil Rights Movement. Taking into account the migration of Caribbeans and Africans to America, those cultural influences are readily seen in many of the creations in “The Calling.”

The exhibition provides a feeling of intimate connection with the artists. This is intentional. Said Sturm-Wijesinghe, “The artists wanted to do an exhibit where they had a chance to tell the personal stories of the doll makers and also the narrative of African-American history. They also really tried to take elements of the home, bringing images of people’s homes and workspaces a little bit into the exhibit.”

One of the dolls, created by Bryce-Laporte, represents Susan July, who “was (a) Black Seminole who fought in the Seminole Wars alongside her husband John Horse.” Part Black, part Spanish, and part Seminole, Horse was a famed warrior, diplomat, and tactician.

Bryce-Laporte makes a point of amplifying images of Black and Indigenous women in her work. “Black women not only ran their household(s), but other people’s households, and they were critical to the development of this country. Black and Indigenous women shaped not only this country, but this hemisphere. Also, many Africans carry Indigenous genes. The other thing is, as much as we have been persecuted, they have been persecuted. What happened to them was genocide. I want to give them as much of a platform as possible,” she said.

The tradition of Black quilt-makers and quilt-making itself, which has an approach and medium similar to that of doll-making, is included in the show. Among these is one of Gadson’s creations, depicting a choir of Black women in kente regalia. Gadson said she doesn’t consider herself a doll-maker, but someone who primarily does “domestic needle art and fine art. I also work with stained glass and beading.” She was specifically asked to contribute quilts for “The Calling.”

Gadson cautioned the public not to consider quilt-making an art form of the past. “A lot of people forget that there are certain arts that always have a resurgence. Quilts had a resurgence in 1976. They also had it in the ’90s and it follows till today, so there are a lot of modern quiltmakers.”

Gadson believes that the long history of inaccurate physical representation of Black features also calls to many artists who are Black doll makers. “For a long time, things didn’t come in our color, right? That urged us to do more things in our craft that reflect us.”

With creations made from about every kind of material imaginable, much of the work in “The Calling” speaks to historic, social, political, and quotidian aspects of Black life. In defiance of revised history and stereotypes, they insist on Black humanity. One of the things that becomes apparent in viewing “The Calling: The Transformative Power of African American Doll and Puppet Making” is that long before “be the change you want to see” became a popular call to action, Black doll makers used their talents to do just that.

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