Whether it is gender conditioning from our parents or powerful maternal instincts, dolls are more often than not a little girl's first play thing and a near universal part of female experience.
Thankfully, for the little Black girls of today, the doll of her dreams is easily available at the click of an Amazon button or a quick trip to the shopping mall. Dolls representing our every hue and all aspects of our Black girl magic are now readily available- vitiligo doll, dolls that cry with 4c afros, hell Barbie even does a Maya Angelou Barbie doll now! Sure there is still progress to be made but the little girl of 2022, can find herself represented in a doll, if her parents have the time and finance to search hard enough!
However we don't need to look far back in time to see many different stories about little Black girls and their dolls as the history of Black dolls is very interesting and multi-faceted. If we go way back, to the little girl's great and great-great grandmothers, and look in the context of traditional African culture, the at this time dolls were not specifically considered children's playthings, Instead dolls were valued objects that held ritual and religious importance. Dolls were often considered to have a spiritual energy and used for ceremonial purposes often to do with fertility and marriage. Dolls were used to teach and entertain, or given as precursor's to marriage and birth. In contrast to today's manufactured often plastic creations, dolls from Black history were handmade and therefore unique, and were traditionally handed down through generations.
Dolls such as the Akua'ba dolls of Ghana and the Namji dolls of Cameron are beautiful examples of traditional African doll culture and these dolls are still made and in use today. To us at The Cornrow, this traditional African way of relating to dolls seems far more meaningful and less consumerist that today's doll culture and another beautiful element of the Black traditional female experience that becoming lost in modern society. In at my home, 'Cottage Noir' have a beautiful Aku'aba doll in my sitting room emitting her feminine divine energy (pictured)! - it is such a shame that people now fear or distrust the spiritual energy embodied in these traditional African art forms.
"African dolls are beautiful element of the Black female experience that becoming lost in modern society"
Post colonialistion a different doll culture emerged
With the advent of colonialism and independence, unsurprisingly African doll culture took a huge turn. Focus moved away from these traditional forms of dolls, and, as Chinua Achebe would say, things fell apart, as reverential, spiritual doll culture took a back seat.
In terns of doll culture, now little girls wanted dolls as playthings (which of course is fair enough!). They were also happy for dolls that looked like the western beauty standards that were being imported. Enter the quintessential doll of the time is known as the Clonette doll or Lady Dei Dei.
The story of how clonette dolls came to be is fascinating. As told by historian Catherine McKinley, it was a Indian plastic manufacturer based in Ghana who created the dolls as a gift for his female market traders. The dolls soon caught on and started being produced commercially as little girls loved them as playthings.
Manufactured in Ghana and exported across the whole of West Africa, clonette dolls were plastic, often vibrantly coloured dolls which became an unmistakable feature of urban life in West Africa in the 1960s and 70s. Looking at the dolls, they seem completely different to what you would expect little West African girls to play with, little bob cuts, holding a rabbit with European features! However they proved extremely popular, they were cheap and readily available and they created a satisfying squeak when pressed. Perhaps their form, with immobile arms and legs echoed something in the cultural memory as they are reminiscent of traditional African carvings?
Lady Dei Dei heralded a new era of dolls made and consumed for Black girls which did not represent them. An issue that is only just becoming rectified by independent and conglomerate doll manufacturers.
But what is next for traditional African doll culture? How can this be modernised and made to stay relevant? Well The Cornrow was delighted to discover Noush dolls . These are dolls designed by Belgian artist Anoushka and created by a South African artisan called Blessing. Noush dolls take the traditional Clonette dolls and place them firmly in the contemporary African space. The dolls still bear the traditional hallmarks of Clonette, the stylised hair, the arms wrapped around an animal, the impassive face - however they are created in ebony black or ivory white, they are holding African animals and their features are proudly African!
NOUSH Dolls TAKE AFRICANA DOLL CULTURE INTO THE FUTURE
We think these "Noush" dolls do a wonderful job of reclaiming some of the spiritual, reverential energy of the traditional African doll but placing her firmly in the context of modern living. Kemi at Cottage Noir as two of these beautiful Noush dolls and they are now available on The Cornrow!