Dolls and Documentation: Seeking the Stories Behind African American Art

Dolls and Documentation: Seeking the Stories Behind African American Art

As Take Note: The Importance of Keeping Detailed Records describes, museums and archives struggled in the past with keeping records relating to their collections. Documentation was written on paper and later lost or was never written down to begin with. Unmarked photographs provide no context for the image being viewed. The unidentified people pictured in these photographs cannot always be identified through research and so those stories are lost.

Beyond this, museum professionals struggle to discover the significance of the unidentified items in their collections. Research can help discover the story and purpose of many artifacts. However, documentation on art, in particular, is often limited. Artists do not always sign their pieces or include the date and medium used. Even limited documentation does little to gain understanding on an artist’s perspective, background, and inspiration. Yet, without this information, the experiences that led to the creation of that piece are forgotten.

This problem is especially important to acknowledge when looking at African American history and art. The insufficient representation of African American contributions to society is a prevalent and widespread issue that continues to exist today. Black artistic presence is missing or extremely limited in many museums. Materials that do relate to African American artistic contributions lack the documentation necessary to understand their background and perspective.

Many cultural institutions work to correct this oversight. The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center is dedicated to exploring and embracing the narratives of African Americans in our society. The Black Heritage through Visual Rhythms show was introduced in 2013 to recognize African American artistic contributions and their value as part of the American experience. The museum also recently acquired the Lillian M. Bartok Black Doll Collection, containing over 800 dolls and which visually portrays the changing history of African American representation in society.

Another form of artistic expression, handmade dolls have long been created by many unknown African American doll makers. The skill and detail involved in creating these dolls indicates the care and appreciation these doll makers had for their work. They are imbued with the stories of their makers. Yet, we, as viewers, can only see hints of these stories.

One doll in particular seems bursting to tell a story that has since disappeared. No doll maker’s name is present and the year of creation is unknown. Without such documentation it is difficult to even discern which side of the doll is the front and which is the back. Yet, the clothing that cocoons the doll’s body seems to represent a wedding outfit constructed of a Victorian crazy quilt.

Crazy quilts were most popular in the 1880s and 1890s, although examples exist from earlier and later dates. These works of art allowed women to show off their hand stitching skills, as well as their artistic sense of design. For these quilts, women pieced together a variety of silk, velvets, and other materials in small splinter shaped pieces. Although the fabrics appear to be placed randomly, quilters took great care in planning the arrangement of the fabrics to be aesthetically pleasing. Interconnecting each of the blocks are decorative embroidery stitches in a variety of colors and patterns. Examples of the stitches used often include feather, herringbone, and French knots.

Further exploring this doll shows the addition of hand crocheted lace along the skirt edge that appears to have been added when the doll was constructed. Buttons are scattered throughout the dress and adorning the doll’s shoulders are two large pieces of antique lace, possibly once belonging to a real wedding dress. The veil that wraps around the doll’s head also appears to be constructed from the remnants of an antique dress.

What story does this doll hold? Perhaps she was constructed from a family’s heirlooms that had begun to disintegrate with age. A Victorian crazy quilt. A prized wedding dress. Maybe even the lace from an infant’s nightgown. As a means of preserving and saving the stories these items tell, a doll was constructed from a family’s treasured past, only for the story to be forgotten all the same. The artifacts and documents that museums and archives hold in their collections are only the beginning. For these items to be truly understood, the stories that they are reminders of must be remembered and recorded before they are forever lost.
This post was written by Wright State University Public History graduate student Riza Miklowski. She just completed an internship researching, cataloging, and rehousing 25% of the Bartok Doll Collection and is currently working on a digital exhibit exploring themes of representation and identity in African American dolls.





Posted September 14, 2018
Topics: The ArtsHistoric PreservationAfrican American HistoryDaily Life

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