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La maison rouge opens exhibition of black dolls from the Deborah Neff Collection
Author Unknown, Sock Doll with red shirt, United States, Circa 1920-1930 Mixed fabrics, mother of pearl. Photo : Ellen McDermott, New York City (detail).

PARIS.- “Black Dolls” is the first time the Neff Collection is shown outside the United States. Comprising an outstanding ensemble of several hundred handmade African-American dolls and a set of photographs from the 1840s to the 1940s, this collection is of interest not only for the diversity and remarkable beauty of the dolls themselves, but also as an insight into the history of America’s Black population and of perceptions of childhood in America. In fact, these dolls could serve a variety of purposes, and some are quite enigmatic in this respect.

For nearly a century, between 1840 and 1940, African-American women designed and made ragdolls for their own children, or the children they looked after. Over a period of twenty-five years, Deborah Neff, a lawyer living in Connecticut, assembled the most extensive and rigorously selected collection of ragdolls anywhere. Where most people dismissed such objects as domestic artifacts of no great interest, Neff patiently tracked down these artifacts whose beauty, formal diversity and originality – in short, whose artistic value – is so immediately obvious to us today. This collection is complemented by an ensemble of photographs and daguerreotypes capturing the reality of childhood – White and Black – at the time. These images speak to us about the children’s complex relation to their Black dolls.

For the first time outside of North America, La maison rouge is presenting the Neff Collection. In fact, the first public exhibition of these works anywhere was at the Mingei International Museum, San Diego, in 2015. For French and European visitors, the show will no doubt be a real aesthetic and historical revelation, and an emotional experience. It offers an extraordinarily moving insight into the imagination, everyday lives and skills of generations of African-American women whose “artistic handicrafts” only began to be documented and preserved a few decades ago. A milestone in this process was the exhibition of quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend1. This curatorial event gave the work of women slaves and their descendants, a place in the global artistic landscape.

A powerful illustration of outsider and self-taught art, the Neff Collection affirms the immense talent of these unnamed women artists in an art world still dominated by European fine arts. This exhibition shows the remarkable variety of the forms invented and techniques and materials used in this veritable art form made with the modest materials of textiles, coconut fiber and leather. Some of these dolls are extremely realistic, right down to their gold vest buttons or lace petticoats in the latest fashion. Others are stunning in their radical abstraction. Some have the size and weight of sculpture and seem to be something other than simple toys– more like ritual or funerary objects that call to mind the circulation and transformation of religious practices from Africa. Others can fit in the palm of a hand – like this black sock turned into a skew-whiff doll by a young girl just learning to sew – and bear the obvious marks of use. They have been carressed, played with, and belong within the immemorial history of dolls.

In response to the new questions raised by these objects, the exhibition and its associated events address not only the history of art and textiles but also religion, anthropology, the history of Black communities in the U.S. and the connection with African doll-making, or, more generally, hybrid ritual practices. This is an opportunity to stimulate and disseminate pioneering cross-disciplinary work ranging from the human sciences to conservation. To take one example, the materials used to stuff the dolls – from cotton to strips of newspaper – are fascinating clues to the origins and places where the dolls were made, which themselves shed light on the painful paths of emancipation followed by American Blacks from the South to the North (the dolls can be found from Alabama to Maine).

While it will probably never be possible to identify the women who made these dolls, the exhibition can convey the sociological and political contexts from which they emerged. House servants, seamstresses, embroiderers, designers, nannies – these women were mothers and grandmothers who, out of love and in a spirit of resistance, wanted to give their black children their own likenesses as Black children – likenesses to love and cherish, despite the violence of slavery and segregation. In a white supremacist world where only one color was deemed beautiful, children, even black children, preferred White dolls, and those Black dolls that were made in the United States were for many years based on the European models, modifying only the skin color, or otherwise had features and clothing based on overtly racist stereotypes. After the 1930s, Black American manufactories responded to the market and began offering young Black girls dolls that really looked as they themselves did, and that they could take pride in identifying with. At the same time, the tradition of these home-crafted dolls began to die out. Each doll in the Neff Collection is handmade and unique. This of course adds to their value. They are survivors of a time when Black Americans were slaves, or were struggling for their rights against a regime of ferocious institutional racism. They are also the very contemporary heroes of a period in which segregation still prevails in Western countries, albeit in other forms.

We may add that these dolls were more than just vehicles for “Black Pride”: some of them were created for the white children cared for by their makers. In fact, while the photographic portraits that bear witness to this fact show the mutual affection between the White child and Black nanny via the transitional mirror of the doll, they were also made to serve the anti-abolitionist case: many employees sought to justify slavery on the basis of this “love” between nanny and child, a love of which these dolls were taken as proof.

The daguerreotypes, tintypes and vintage prints showing children, both Black and White, playing with dolls, sometimes in clearly defined scenarios (bed time, funeral, meal, journey, punishment) and in a variety of settings, explore these complex and important questions, and can be related to more contemporary theories about toys and play. They give an idea of the roles played by these dolls in the hands of their young owners: they were doubles, idols and, as the children grew older, victims of punishment, or servants. These dolls are powerful scripted objects, and throughout the exhibition the scripts behind them are deciphered by archive documents (private diaries of young girls, children’s or women’s magazines, sound archives).

However, it would be a mistake to think that these games always followed the dominant patterns. In making their original, unique dolls, African-American women were also encouraging their owners to write new scripts and new paradigms. Could these “Black dolls” therefore be seen as miniature Trojan horses in the baskets of White children, a form of subversion, like the cake-walk dance, a satire of the White master that the White master loved? Some of them suggest as much, like the “topsy-turvy” ones with a Black head at one end and a White one at the other, sometimes separated by a skirt). These disturbing objects evoke a binary world where the two races were bound to oppose each other. What children’s games, we may wonder, did these dolls act out? The hundred dolls brought together in this exhibition are works of art and works of resistance. A people gone missing, a people returning, fixing us with their intent eyes of beads or thread. Black Dolls are Beautiful.

1 At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2003

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