Lead Story West Edition

Arts center exhibit celebrates African-American dolls

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — The name of the exhibit alone captures a memory embedded in the hearts of young girls everywhere.

“Double Dutch: A Celebration of Black Girlhood” is an exhibit at the William Grant Still Arts Center featuring 220 African-American dolls.

Celebrating its 38th year, the exhibit features dolls from across the diaspora including America, Africa and Haiti.

The exhibit opened Dec. 8 with those attending treated to an afternoon of jazz by the Marcus Miller Ensemble while sipping wine and munching on finger foods.

Curator Myshell Tabu blithely tap-danced with her daughter, Mma-Syrai, to the delight of the crowd.

The dolls on display represent every size and hue, from café-au-lait to Ebony as well as the diversity of black hair, which include locks, twists, braids, curls, waves and straight tresses.

“We wanted to show the many nuances of black girlhood, including play, social justice, education, the black experience, and hair,” Tabu said. “We asked for submissions from all over the world and we were overwhelmed with the response.”

Tabu said that she was inspired to name the exhibit after double dutch, the popular childhood game where children, especially young girls, exhibited their athletic skill by jumping rope at amazing speeds.

“I played Double Dutch every day when I was a child and it was the first image that came into my mind,” Tabu said. “The game required teamwork and that you had to get along with each other whether you had had a previous argument or not — because somebody had to swing the ropes.”

As dozens of doll makers and admirers strolled through the exhibit, many paused to chat with Stacy McBride-Irby, a former employee of Mattel Toys who had designed a number of Barbie dolls for the company.

McBride-Irby said that Barbies had always fascinated her.

“She was my fantasy doll,” she recalled. “She had the closet full of clothes, the dream house, and drove that cool Corvette.”

McBride-Irby left Mattel to launch her own company, McIrby Enterprises, as well as her website, iamudolls.com, which she co-founded to create Prettie Girl Multicultural dolls. The dolls teach girls to be positive, respectful, enthusiastic, truthful, talented, inspiring and excellent.

The Gardena-based McBride-Irby is also the creator of the Sunjai doll, which is fashioned after a black dancer.

“She’s an actual personality from the TV show ‘Bring It’ on Lifetime Network,” said McBride-Irby, who has been designing dolls for more than 20 years. “I have a plant in China that mass produces the dolls for me,” she said. “I design my dolls from the heart.”

The dolls on exhibit represent a number of issues.

“We have a submission from doll maker Ingrid Elberg,” Tabu said. “She struggled with infertility and created pregnant dolls hoping it would help her to have a baby. She submitted a pink pregnant doll and a black pregnant doll. Even though she hasn’t gotten pregnant yet, she thinks of the dolls as her babies.”

Laronda Carson submitted her doll from South Carolina. The doll maker sent a note along with the doll revealing that she was the long-time victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.

“She sent us a doll in her white nightgown and the doll’s crotch is bloody and red,” said Tabu. “Carson said she was fondled daily by her stepfather from the ages of 11 to 17. When she exposed the abuse, her sisters became angry and turned against her. It caused Carson to sink into a deep depression and to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The creativity and diversity of the dolls on display offer something for everyone.

“We have replicas of a veterinarian, a doctor and dolls reading to other dolls,” said Tabu, who said that dolls promoting literacy are a popular topic.

There were also a number of dolls representing African-American female heroines.

“We have a Gabby Douglas doll, inspired by the Olympic gymnast, a doll inspired by Ibtihaj Muhammad, a famous black Muslim fencer, and a ballerina doll inspired by world-class ballerina Misty Copeland,” Tabu said.

Mary Kimbrough, a longtime doll collector and former owner of Zambezi Bazaar in Leimert Park, submitted 20 dolls from her collection.

“I have a doll playing soccer and a doll playing the violin,” said Kimbrough, who is also a member of the Crescent Bay Doll Club, the only black doll club in Los Angeles. “I have others that are reading or playing musical instruments.

“I also like dolls that have pain in their faces,” added Kimbrough, who wanted to emphasize that life is comprised of both happiness and sadness. “I have one doll that is crying because there’s a nail in her foot.”

Doll maker Patricia Shivers, based in Corona, has 16 dolls in the exhibit and began making dolls at the age of 7.

“I wanted to make a doll that looked like me,” said Shivers, now 74, whose company, Raggnation, receives requests to create dolls from all over the world. One of Shivers’ most popular exhibits is her submission of three young girls who are joyously enjoying a game of double dutch.

“I like my dolls to look alive,” said the hairstylist. “I use acrylic paint to paint their faces and I use cotton for their bodies and cardboard to make their shoes that are fashioned with jewels. My dolls have real toes.

“All of my dolls have real hair and teeth and they all have different personalities,” said Shivers, who has fashioned dolls in the likenesses of Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday.

Shivers said she would be teaching a master class in doll making with other doll artists at the William Grant Still Art Center on Feb. 13.

Doll collector Barbara Radford nearly cried when she spied her beloved old doll, “The Teddy Baby,” displayed in the exhibit.

“I bought that doll from the Goodwill in 1986,” she recalls. “I bought it because it was black and I had not seen many black dolls until then. I grew up in a family of seven girls so I never really had a doll of my own.”

Tabu’s 8-year-old daughter Ella also contributed to the exhibition and focused on the topic of social justice.

“Ella felt that little black girls are forced into activism at an early age because they don’t have the choice of growing up without seeing race or color,” Tabu said.

Tabu said that Ella submitted a gallery of dolls that showcased Ruby Nell Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white school in Louisiana in 1960 as well as a doll representing Nia Wilson, the 18-year-old passenger whose throat was slashed by a white supremacist on a train in Oakland and subsequently died. Ella also featured dolls that represented black women battling breast cancer.

“My eldest daughter, 14-year-old Mma-Syrai, submitted dolls with down syndrome, albinism and dolls in wheelchairs,” Tabu said.

“Visitors said that this was the best doll exhibit William Grant Still has held so far,” Tabu said. “We have dolls of every range from dark to light — there are dolls with freckles, dark eyes and even hazel eyes,” said the curator, who urged doll lovers to visit the exhibit on display until Feb. 16.

The William Grant Still Arts Center is located at 2520 S. West View St. in Los Angeles. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 5 p.m.