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Mingei Museum’s “Black Dolls” offers a playful view of history

Black dolls from the collection of Deborah Neff.
Black dolls from the collection of Deborah Neff.
/ Courtesy

“Black Dolls,” an art exhibition featuring 125 inimitable, handmade African-American dolls created between 1850 and 1940, will have its world premiere, Feb. 7-July 5 at Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.

The dolls are believed to have been created by African Americans and portray playful boys and girls, finely dressed gentlemen and elegant young ladies, distinguished older men and stately, determined women of mature years.

Their embroidered, stitched and painted faces express a variety of emotions — surprise, puzzlement, contentment and joy.

The dolls are constructed of mixed media, many made of leftover materials, including precious bits of lace, ribbon and selvage. 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. Some dolls have heads made from coconut shells, leather-wrapped heads and limbs, or make use of manufactured doll parts.

“Black Dolls” also includes a selection of rare 19th and 20th century photographs of dolls, posed alone or clutched by their young owners. The images provide a historical context for the handmade and cherished companions.

To illuminate these stories and to honor Black History Month, the Mingei collaborated with several local organizations to develop public programs related to the exhibition. “Black Dolls” is the fourth show in the museum’s 18-month exhibition theme “American Icons — Celebrating Folk Art, Craft and Design from Coast to Coast.”

If you go: Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday. Admission: $7-$10. (619) 239-0003. mingei.org

Related Events

Feb. 25, 6-8 p.m. “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?” film screening with director Samantha Knowles, museum staff, and Gaidi Finnie of the San Diego African American Fine Arts Museum. The film focuses on the little-known black doll community and shares stories of the history, beauty and pride of the black doll. Free with museum admission.

March 14, 2-4 p.m. Discussion on how African Americans have been depicted in art, memorabilia and collectibles — including dolls — throughout history, held in collaboration with SDAAFAM at Bayview Baptist Church, 6134 Benson Ave. Free.

March 18, 6-8 p.m. “Who is Leo Moss?” forensic discussion with Dr. Steve Eilenberg radiologist and artist who used X-ray and CAT scan equipment at Scripps Health to reveal information on several dolls in the exhibition. Tickets: $8-$12 at the museum