Exhibitions / Black Dolls

from the Collection of Deborah Neff

February 7, 2015 - July 5, 2015

Curator: Christine Knoke

BLACK DOLLS – from the Collection of Deborah Neff presents over 100 unique handmade African-American dolls made between 1850 and 1940. Faithful yet stylized representations of young and old African Americans, the dolls portray playful boys and girls, finely dressed gentlemen and elegant young ladies, distinguished older men and stately, determined women of mature years. The dolls are believed to have been created by African Americans for children that they knew‒members of their own families and communities as well as white children in their charge. Embroidered, stitched and painted faces express a variety of emotions–surprise, puzzlement, contentment and joy.

The dolls featured are constructed from a variety of materials. A number of dolls are simply presented, while others wear elaborate clothing, including undergarments, coats, hats, shoes and accessories. Many were made of leftover materials, including precious bits of lace, ribbon and selvage. Sock dolls were created with mended stockings stuffed with wool or raw cotton. Several dolls have delicate paper clothing, teeth and eyes; others have a small piece of wood or leather inserted under the fabric to form a nose. Topsy-turvy dolls reveal a black doll on one side and a white doll on the other, providing two dolls to play with instead of one. Some dolls have heads made from coconut shells, leather-wrapped heads and limbs, or make use of manufactured doll parts; others use bottles as the foundations of the dolls’ bodies.

BLACK DOLLS also includes rare nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs of dolls, clutched by their young owners, or posed alone; these provide a fascinating yet somewhat mysterious context for these handmade and cherished companions.

BLACK DOLLS is part of the AMERICAN ICONS Exhibition Series. Beginning in June 2014 and throughout 2015 the Museum will mount a series of exhibitions to celebrate the imagination, inspiration and innovation of Americans who have for more than three centuries created stunning works of folk art, craft and design – our shared American Icons. AMERICAN ICONS is generously sponsored by Just Folk.

Download a digital version of the publication Clues in the Cloth.