The Black Doll Series

American female slaves were the earliest makers of black dolls for their own children. The mass production of black dolls (for more seemingly sinister purposes) dates back to late 19th century toy production in Germany and France. By appropriating the listing photos of black vintage dolls for sale on e-commerce sites like Etsy and eBay, I have created a collection of new non-gestural, digital images rooted in the aesthetic tradition of geometric abstraction.

One common use for dolls across cultures has been to represent the human figure and instill a sense of care and maternity. Although for many children of color, the dolls chosen for us are also our first introduction to the divisive concept of “race”, specifically if the doll’s color does not match our own.

As a child, the darkest doll I had was a Hawaiian Barbie that I coveted for her caramel skin, brown eyes and silky, jet-black hair that flowed past her waist. As a mother, I question the roles dolls play in establishing conventional expressions of gender and racial identity. I am further interested in how the mass production of these dolls have perpetuated or upheld stereotypical opinions about femininity, motherhood and blackness.

The Black Doll series (2017) pairs each new abstracted image with the seller’s original item description, creating an interplay between social representation and personal memory. What happens when these doll images are (digitally) broken down into basic, formal elements of shape and color? What meaning, if any, can we derive from their descriptions/captions? Can abstraction be used to deconstruct racial and gender stereotypes?