Annual Black Doll Show opens at arts center

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — The city’s longest-running annual exhibition of Black dolls, the 43rd annual Black Doll Show is now on display at the William Grant Still Arts Center. 

Entitled, “Conjure: Reclaiming African American Traditions Through Hoodoo and Other Spiritual Dolls,” the show explores the many protective, liberating and loving ways that dolls, amulets, quilts, charms and other items are used in African-American spiritual traditions. 

The show, open through Feb. 10, celebrates the history and future of dolls and recognizes that dolls in African spirituality are considered powerful tools that offer an opportunity for ritual healing through veneration of ancestors, protection, good fortune, education and overall well-being.

The resolve of the show is to use dolls to examine the difficulties of being Black, and from there, to work toward healing.

For the “Conjure” exhibit, Monica Bailey, a Los Angeles-based curator and cultural producer, uses dolls and other spiritual objects to immerse viewers in African cosmology through an African-American lens.

Bailey, a creator and education and community outreach coordinator at the center, has always been enthralled with the way dolls provide a mirrored reflection of the self. She connects emotionally with dolls and grew up using dolls in imaginative play. Bailey feels that dolls are connected to people spiritually and that they somehow have the ability to understand feelings.

“Presenting foundational roots in spirituality for Black Americans through the history of doll making is a significant tool that has created a restoration and strength of past, present and future,” Bailey said. “These discoveries through my research are a testament to the healing that continues to connect the Africanisms that have been villainized for centuries.”

Co-curated by Jahsun Ifakolade Edmonds, the exhibit encourages viewers to ask the question, “How can these tools help us flourish our connection with our origin stories and honor these histories going forward?”

Edmonds called this year’s show “an experience.”

“The title, ‘Conjure: Reclaiming African American Traditions Through Hoodoo and Other Spiritual Dolls’ says it all,”  said Edmonds, a lecturer at Cal State Dominguez Hills and an Ifa priest. “Our goal, with this experience/show, is to explore the magical aspects of the African diasporic experience while containing the multidimensional processes of how we celebrate our innovation, ingenuity, resistance and resilience. Conjure forces us to respond to the question: Why settle for being exceptional when you can just be magical?”

This year’s featured artists and/or collectors include Adrienne DeVine, Adrienne Franklin, Aiysha Sinclair, Angela Briggs, Anitra Bradley, Barry Stinson, Billie Greene, Candace Thomas, Carine Fabius, Doug Pearsall, Dr. Beverly Fogart, Cynthia Davis, Fana Baba Dayo, Fallon Wilson, Floyd Bell, Griffin Lotson, Heather Hilliard Bonds, Imani Afi, Iyami Aje, Jade Daniels, Jerri Hubbard, Jom Rivers, LaRonda Carson, Lola, Lavish, Lois Von B, Mac Billups, Marsha May Bennett, Nawili Grey, Nicole Buchanan, NK Abstract, Norman Reneau, Ronieka Pinkey, Sanyu Estelle, Shamanika Boykins, Sharon Alile Larkin, Sika, The AfroMystic and Myshell Tabu.

The Black Doll Show at the William Grant Still Arts Center, started in the 1980s by the Friends of William Grant Still Arts Center, was inspired by a doll test conducted by Mamie and Kenneth Clark in the 1940s. The tests concluded that due to social stigmas, many Black children preferred white dolls over Black dolls. This test went on to become evidence in civil rights lawsuits.

The Clarks became expert witnesses in Brown vs. Board of Education and helped the landmark decision to desegregate schools.

The doll test was conducted again in 2006 by 17-year-old filmmaker Kiri Davis, with the same results.

Inspired by the doll test, artist/curator Cecil Fergerson started the Black Doll show in the 1980s.

Wanting to change the negative self-image, Fergerson brought together handmade dolls by artists around the country into one exhibit.

Through its many transformations, the Black Doll Show, an annual winter tradition at the center, has been a celebration of Black dolls from slavery, Jim Crow, freedom marches, music, dance, jazz, hip-hop and more.

“The long-standing tradition of the Black Doll exhibition at the William Grant Still Arts Center explores the importance of Black dolls and their representations through the lens of race, gender, and history,” said Daniel Tarica, general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, which operates the center. “This year’s 43rd annual exhibition illuminates African diasporic traditions that have the power to connect spiritual practices and representations to the power, wholeness and ancestry of Black communities.”

In addition to the exhibit, the center will host an array of workshops led by seasoned artists and practitioners.

On Dec. 16, Cynthia Davis and Beverly Heath will host an altar workshop. The first doll-making workshop will be held Jan. 13, followed by Dolls of Hope Jan. 20.

In addition to doll workshops, the center will host a candle-making workshop with The AfroMystic on Jan. 27. Aiysha Sinclair will host the final doll-making workshop on Feb. 3.

Other events in conjunction with the Black Doll Show include a panel discussion and master workshop Jan. 6, with Griffin Lotson (Gullah Geechee Historian and Manager of the Geeche Gullah Ring Shouters) and other guests.

Performance art pieces will be performed by Jade Daniels Jan. 11, and Nawili Gray and Fana Babadayo Jan. 13.

A film screening will be held Feb. 2, with filmmaker Alile Sharon Larkin (LA Rebellion Collective). and a performance art piece by Jade Daniels.

The William Grant Still Arts Center is located 2520 S. West View St., Los Angeles. The center is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at