‘Black Dolls’ at Mingei International Museum a window into the past

Early Gentleman, circa 1860s. U.S.A., Massachusetts; mixed fabrics, leather, brass, glass.
(Ellen McDermott / Mingei International Museum)

On public display for the first time, “Black Dolls” is a snapshot of African American life from an era past. The exhibition at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego consists of 125 handmade dolls made between 1850 and 1940. The black experience has been embroidered with ingenuity into these mixed-media figurines — boys and girls, men and women of a certain age, all made of materials on hand: paper for clothing, teeth and eyes; small pieces of wood hidden under fabric forming noses; coconut shell, papier-mâché and leather heads; ribbed sock bodies.

“I think people will be really inspired by the resourcefulness of these doll makers,” said Christine Knoke, the museum’s chief curator.

Though the identities of the artists are unknown, the dolls, from collector Deborah Neff, are believed to have been made by African Americans for their own children and for the white children in their charge. The best part of the display, Knoke said, are the expressions painted on the dolls’ faces.

“It’s like they have a personality and have got something to say,” she said, “Bewilderment, joy, surprise.”


The exhibition will be open through July 5.