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African American Art Dolls and Puppets for Identity and Healing

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An African American man stands behind a display of four hand-crafted African American puppets.
Dr. Schroeder Cherry exhibiting some of the puppets he has made and performs at the Library of Congress, February 18, 2020. Photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

On February 18, 2020, the Library of Congress hosted an unusual event, a celebration of African American dolls and puppets sponsored by the American Folklife Center’s Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series. Folklorist Camila Bryce-Laporte and fellow artist, Dr. Deborah Grayson,  presented several artists from Maryland and the District of Columbia. The event also included a wonderful exhibition of dolls by the presenters and other artists. The dolls and puppets featured were handmade by the presenters and exhibitors. These included dolls and puppets made of fabric, wood, Papier-mâché, ceramic, and air-dried clay. Several of the participants got their start as textile artists, while others began working in other art forms before learning to make dolls and/or puppets.

An African American doll made of fabric and beads.
A doll made by Francine Haskins exhibited at the Library of Congres, February 18, 2020. Photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center. Photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Dolls and puppets, whether they are artistic creations as those presented here, or toys we are given as children, always transcend the materials they are made of to become more than objects. They are named, talked to, imbued with personalities, and sometimes seem to have a will of their own, at least in our imaginations. Puppeteers say that a newly created puppet is “born” and there may be some ceremony in naming it and performing it for the first time. Dolls may have this quality as well, though we do not often say so. As art, dolls and puppets have many of the same qualities as sculptures and yet they can be held, moved, and many can be posed. This makes them seem more intimate as we interact with them.

African American dolls and puppets made by African American artists may be born out of a need to make a representation of the artist, or of a figure that looks like a member of the artist’s own community. African Americans often have an experience of growing up without many positive representations of people who look like themselves in popular culture, dolls, fictional characters, and public figures. As a result young children of color often have a sense that there is something wrong with them very early. This, along with experiences of discrimination, adds to a social sense of being out of place. Though hopefully this is getting better for young people growing up today, it is a problem that is still with us. Dolls and puppets presented by the artists here are described by the artists as having a function of healing both physical and emotional hurts, expressing a positive African American identity through art, and exploring African and African American history. This is not only true for the makers but for those who see them or acquire them to take into their own lives.

Three ceramic African American dolls dressed in historic costumes.
Dolls made by Camila Bryce-Laporte. Photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Folklorist Camila Bryce-Laporte, a former American Folklife Center Folklife Specialist and independent folklorist, introduced the session and presented her foundational work with the artisans. After receiving her BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Fine Arts, Performing Arts and the Humanities, Bryce-Laporte worked in Folklore Studies at George Washington University. For more than thirty years, Camila worked on children, cultural and educational programming for the Children’s Television Network, CBS Cable, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress. Of the creation of African American dolls and puppets, she says “African American artisans utilize ancient skills and innovative technologies to create dolls and puppets that are both whimsical and starkly serious. Their creations — incorporating clay, textiles, wood, glass, and found objects — embrace the somber reality of African American experiences and optimism for a boundless future. Working alone and in communities these artisans create dolls and puppets that articulate Black beauty, strength, style, spirituality, and truth.”

As I look at these dolls and puppets I am impressed by their exuberance. They seem to have bold personalities, as if they might jump up and talk (and, of course, the puppets do just that). The artists in this presentation explain how their creations have meaning for them and what inspires their work. I think it also must take a great deal of courage to do this type of art as the inspiration so often arises out of pain. The speakers you will see in this video are able to do what they do in no small part because of the artistic community that they have forged themselves in the Baltimore-Washington area and beyond. Because the live presentation was a forum with an exhibition of dolls and puppets, I wanted to bring together a few of the images from the exhibition with the video. So below the video you will learn more about each artist with images of their work. These dolls and puppets, born out of the artists’ need to represent their experience and reach out to their community, may reach far beyond that to take their messages to the wider world.

Displays of dolls can be seen in a room with people interacting around them.
A view of the February 18, 2020, exhibition at the Library of Congress as artists interact with the public. In the foreground is a display of dolls made by Francine Haskins. Photo by Stephen Winick. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
Three African-style fabric dolls decorated with cowrie shells with a mixed-media wall hanging and batik fabrics.
Dolls, fabric, and artwork by Kibibi Ajanku exhibited at the Library of Congress February 18, 2020. Detail of a photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

The artists who spoke in the forum in alphabetical order were:

Kibibi Ajanku curates and guides the elements of the Urban Arts Leadership Fellowship for the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance where she serves as Equity and Inclusion Director. Ajanku is also the Urban Arts Professor for a small cohort of students at Coppin State University, and additionally serves as a Community Researcher for Maryland Institute College of Art. Ajanku works consistently and deeply as a social justice voice. She also leads monthly equity conversations for the Alliance and administers a new Urban Arts Field School project with Urban Arts Leadership fellows and community folklorists, recently funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. She is also a performance artist, a fiber artist, and makes art dolls inspired by African art and the diaspora (see the photo at the right).

Camila Bryce-Laporte, introduced above as an organizer of this event, is also a doll maker. She makes African American dolls herself, especially historical dolls reflecting her Caribbean heritage. The third image from the top of this blog shows examples of her dolls.

Dr. Schroeder Cherry, a native of Washington, D. C., is now a Baltimore-based artist and 2019 Sondheim competition finalist who captures everyday scenes of African American life, often set in barbershops and utilizing repurposed materials. These works tend to have narratives; but there is no one story, as viewers bring their own experiences to each piece. He also holds a doctorate in museum education from Columbia University (1988) and worked previously for the Institute of Museums and Library Services, a federal agency, first as Deputy Director for Museums, then as Counselor to the Director (2002–11). He currently teaches museum studies to graduate students and resides in Maryland. He is pictured with his puppets at the top of this blog. Of creating his puppets he says, “As a puppeteer, after I finish birthing a puppet, it actually takes on its own personality and I learn who it is.”

A handmade African American doll in red displayed in a box. Instead of arms, the doll has wings made of feathers.
Winged doll made by Deborah Grayson displayed at the Library of Congress, February 18, 2020. Photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Dr. Deborah R. Grayson makes drawings, paintings, sculpture and prints that draw on magic, myth, and memory to create a contemporary picture of the real and imagined worlds of women’s lives. An example of one of her dolls is pictured on the left. Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Montgomery County, Maryland, Dr. Grayson completed a BA at the University of Maryland, College Park and an MA and PhD at Michigan State University. In addition to her studio work Dr. Grayson is an independent scholar and much sought after workshop facilitator and teacher. Dr. Grayson’s creative process embraces deconstruction as part of creation. She is intrigued by the process of bringing together seemingly disparate materials – old, new and found – to build her bodies of work.

Francine Haskins is a doll maker, fiber artist, painter, illustrator, and author of children’s books. Her art reflects her experiences growing up in Washington, D. C. She studied art at the Corcoran School of Art, Catholic University, and the Smithsonian Associate Program. She makes dolls of fabric and fiber decorated with beads and other objects. An example of one of her dolls is above — the second photo from the top in this blog. She talks about her work as a journey of self-discovery, giving an example of something she wrote about one of her quilts: “Finding out I was not lost, just hiding.” Her work, she says, is at first done for herself. Then after creating it she enjoys learning how it affects other people. Her work has been exhibited in museums across the United States, and is featured at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum shop. She speaks directly to artists saying, “If you are an artist, don’t be afraid, go deep, get that pain out, work with that pain, because that’s what it’s there for, to help you work and move on.”

Linda Kato is a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a progressive international order of Catholic nuns, founded in 1800, with a mission to make God’s love visible in the world, with a focus on education, human development and promotion of social justice. She studied doll making with Gwendolyn Daniels at Montgomery College in Maryland, and found that doll making is a wonderful medium in these polarized times for engaging people and conveying important facts about the world in ways that cut across fault lines of ideology, race/ethnicity, gender, culture, socioeconomic class, and age. Her dolls are accompanied with accounts of the lives of the women they portray and wear clothing that carefully replicates the fashions of their time. She exhibited two handmade historical dolls at the event: Maggie Leana Walker, the first African-American woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States and  Eliza Nebbitt, the first enslaved person who was “gifted” by the Bishop of New Orleans to her Order when its members first arrived in the United States in 1818. Eliza Nebbitt remained at the convent after she was freed and would have joined the order if the laws of the time allowed it. The doll, shown on the right in the photo below, is based on a portrait taken of Ms. Nebbitt when she was an elderly lady. She was light-skinned and had light eyes, as is seen in the doll. The colors of the clothing had to be guessed, but the cloths are taken from the portrait. As you will hear in the video, she has a keen interest in the history of slavery in the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the order’s efforts to make amends.

Two handmade female dolls in nineteenth century dresses. Both represent light-skinned African Americans.
Historical African American dolls made by Linda Kato exhibited at the Library of Congress February 18, 2020. The one on the left is Maggie Lena Walker. On the right is Eliza Nebbitt,  depicted as she looked as a free woman later in her life. Detail of a photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Imani W. Russell is the creator of Indigo’s Friends Art Dolls and notions and owner of Indigo’s Friends Studio in Brentwood, Maryland. She is a largely self-taught dollmaker, designer, and fiber artist drawing on influences from the arts of her mother and her maternal grandmother. Both created hand stitched utilitarian quilts and other wonderful things from worn clothing, found fabrics, and unusual objects. She began creating Indigo’s Friends cloth dolls in the early 1990s. Although invited as a speaker, Ms. Russell initially thought she would prefer to sit in the audience. But after the other artists spoke, she stood up to talk about her reasons for creating dolls and did so enthusiastically. So she can be seen speaking from the floor towards the end of the video.

A diplay of African American dolls made of fabric and other media along with fabric books and fabric art.
Indigo’s Friends dolls and fabric art made by Imani W. Russell, exhibited at the Library of Congress, February 18, 2020. Photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Cynthia Sands began her artistic career as a textile artist. She spent her formative years in Washington D. C. and graduated from Howard University’s School of Fine Arts in 1971. In collaboration with Ghanaian Carver Awuda, she has created a series of finely designed and sculpted dolls inspired by the traditional African Akuaba carvings and African folklore. The Akuaba is the name of a woman who could not have children, and, so the story goes, she carried a wooden doll on her back as if it were a baby and then was able to have a child. This story gave rise to wooden dolls carried by women who, like Akuaba, want to conceive a child. The hand painted dolls in Cynthia Sand’s series are, as she says, uniquely designed and bring to life the wisdom of our African ancestors.

Painted wooden African dolls.
Akuaba dolls carved by Ghanaian artist Awuda and painted by Cynthia Sands exhibited at the Library of Congress, February 18, 2020. The dolls in the front in natural colors are examples of the African dolls carried by women who want to conceive a child. Detail of a photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Paula Whaley was trained in fashion design. She began working with clay as a healing tool in 1992 after the death of her brother, James Baldwin, who had been a father figure for her. She is a sculptor and traditional doll maker. She says “My work has always been concerned with the act of making art as a source of healing. With figurative expression as my primary focus, art has also allowed me to connect with others who respond to this theme. So many aspects of human experience find ways into my work. I am captivated by the ephemeral nature of life, the role of gesture and subtle combinations of elements. The underlying spirit within makes each figure an expression of deep personal reflection.”

A clay art doll by Paula Whaley exhibited at the Library of Congress, February 18, 2020. The hands and head of the doll are made with an air-dry clay and she is dressed in hand-dyed clothing. The doll was exhibited with the poem that inspired it, “Ancestors” by Karim Karefa-Smart. Detail of a photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress American Folklife Center.


“African American Dollmaking and Puppetry,” Library of Congress February 18, 2020 (video)

Hall, Stephanie, “Finding Inspiration in Traditional Crafts,” Folklife Today, August 10, 2020.

Hall, Stephanie, “Puppets: A Story of Magical Actors,” Folklife Today, March 16, 2018.

Comments (4)

  1. I have an orginial African American Gerber baby doll in original box with two boxes of Gerber baby cereal and plastic Gerber bag that I would like to donate to The Libary of Congress.

    • Thank you for your interest in our collections. The American Folklife Center does not usually collect artifacts, although we keep a few traditional items for exhibit purposes. Our archive does acquire documentation of handmade traditional artifacts, such as photographs. So this doll is outside the scope of our collections. You might inquire at the Princeton Doll and Toy Museum to see if they are interested: If you have more questions about American Folklife Center acquisitions policies, please contact [email protected]

  2. I. Am 82years of age and belong to Americorps Senior Cpanions a visiting bprogram for older citizens. I had an idea toa make dolls of color for the two children’s hospitals in our area. I want to engage African-Smerican wen for input. We are allowed income and want suggestions on how to acquire materials and ideas for cloth dollsfor boys and girls that are safe

  3. This is a beautiful exhibition of Black art. The dolls speak to you through their dress and ornaments. The message of dolls needs to be spread to other museums in the DMV area. Please showcase this exhibition again in 2022 perhaps as a virtual exhibition experience.
    Pat Neal

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