A former LACMA curator created the event, now in its 39th year, to change the way black dolls were perceived.
As soon as they step inside, five-year-olds Ashely Ortiz and Bengi Aragon make a mad dash toward the bright colors and funky shapes inside the gallery space at the William Grant Still Arts Center in West Adams. They hold hands as Ashely points out her favorites among the miniature and life-size handcrafted dolls that line the walls and hang from shelves, with special recognition given to the doll holding a microphone — a Billie Holiday replica that looks as if it’s about to regale us in some soulful blues.
The William Grant Still Arts Center is home to the annual Black Doll Show, the longest-running continuous art show put on through the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. The show originated in the ‘80s after Black Arts Council co-founder and former LACMA curator Cecil Ferguson watched a re-enactment of the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiment on a show hosted by Art Linkletter. During the original experiment, the pair asked black children a series of questions about two dolls; one white and one black. Most children chose the white doll when asked which one was the “nice” one.
Top: One room abundantly dotted with variations of afro puffs was designed by artist Adah Glenn. She conceptualized everything from the rag dolls and wall paintings to the animation playing on a loop. Bottom: One of her artistic mentors, the artist Snake Doctor, is a character in Glenn’s animated short. Photos by Ande Richards.
Ferguson was saddened by the experiment. He decided to do something that would help change the way black dolls are presented and received. So he created the Black Doll Show with the help of contributors who loaned their dolls to the show or crafted their own. It was an immediate success and has remained an integral event in the West Adams community since its inception.
The theme for this year’s exhibit is “Psychedollia.” The show features a video installation, quilted art pieces, paper doll cutouts and old vinyl R&B records, all of which complement the impressive collection of dolls on display in the three-room gallery. WGSAC Director Ami Motevalli says the show’s concept came together collaboratively.
The Psychedollia show is a celebration of events that depict black life in all its facets. Photos by Ande Richards.
“I came up with the concept with Sofia Gabaldon and Monica Bailey,” Motevalli says. “It was after looking at a sketchbook by the artist Snake Doctor who was here installing for the last show we had — “Rocking the Nation.” So when we looked at his sketchbook and he had this really beautiful psychedelic sketch of a woman and she had some shorts on and braids and it was pretty extraordinary. It looked like a fantasyland. And as we went off to a meeting, we came up with the idea of doing something that was psychedelic-based.”
The Shindana Toy Factory was located in South Los Angeles and was recognized as the largest manufacturer of “ethnically correct” black dolls and toys.
Billie Green is a Black Doll Show veteran and this year, as she has in the past, she contributed her collectible Shindana dolls to the show. The Shindana Toy Factory was located in South Los Angeles and was recognized as the largest manufacturer of “ethnically correct” black dolls and toys. Green says she always wanted to show her children positive images of themselves.
“The Shindana dolls actually represent my children,” she says. “When they were growing up, these were the dolls that they had. My son had the ‘OJ,’ my daughter had the ‘Dreamwalker’ and one of them had ‘Wanda the Korean’ doll.”
Quilts and paper doll cutouts decorate the hallways of the William Grant Still Arts Center leading into three rooms where dolls of varying materials and styles are on display. Photos by Ande Richards.
Formerly a firehouse, the small community center situated on West View Street has a reputation for staging thought-provoking shows.
“We really wanted to focus on joy,” Motevalli says, “in maintaining our joy as a form of uplifting, upholding, of moving forward and being revolutionary. People say we do political work. I believe everyone does political work … One thing that’s constantly erased from this community is the idea that the community actually engages in joy. And we wanted this to be about fun and joy and not in a frivolous sense because that’s not what you see when you see the exhibition. It’s like pure, guttural joy of living life and the revolutionary act of love.”
The William Grant Still Arts Center is a community arts facility supported by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. It offers creative workshops, music and art classes for adults and youths, an exhibition space, concerts and a place for the neighborhood to come together.
The 39th Annual Black Doll Show runs through this Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.