Black Dolls - The Deborah Neff Collection

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This rare catalogue was published in 2014 to accompany an exhibition at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, California. The book presents over 100 unique handmade African American dolls made between 1850 and 1940 from the collection of Deborah Neff. Stitched largely by Black women for their own children or white youngsters under their care, the dolls were ingeniously crafted from materials at hand. Acquired over many years, Neff’s renowned collection is considered to be one of the finest of its kind ever to be assembled.

The dolls portray faithful yet stylized representations of young and old African Americans—playful boys and girls, well-dressed gentlemen, elegant young ladies, and distinguished older men and women. Made with scraps of cloth, ribbon and lace, or old socks, and stuffed with wool or cotton, these unusual dolls are charming and full of emotional spirit. Their faces are embroidered, stitched and painted to express a variety of emotions, each representing a fascinating story of culture and identity in American history.

The book also features an assortment of rare vintage photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, showing both black and white children holding, posing or playing with their dolls.

In an essay, renowned artist Faith Ringgold addresses the inherent prejudices of this work as well as her personal connection with the medium. Also included are essays by Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Margo Jefferson and writer Lyle Rexer. All photography for the book is by Ellen McDermott.

  • 192 pages
  • 9.9 x 1.2 x 12.2 inches
  • hardcover
  • by Frank Maresca, (Editor), Margo Jefferson Faith Ringgold, and Lyle Rexer
  • Co-published by Radius Books and the Mingei International Museum
  • Photographs by Ellen McDermott Photography

Black Dolls
(February 25 -- June 5, 2022) explores handmade cloth dolls made primarily by African American women between 1850 and 1940 through the lens of race, gender, and history. Examining the formation of racial stereotypes and confronting the persistence of racism in American history. It features more than 100 cloth dolls, alongside dozens of historical photographs of white and Black children posed with their playthings and caregivers. A coda explores 20th-century commercial dolls marketed to a broader audience of Black families seeking to instill pride in their children. Through these humble yet potent objects, Black Dolls reveals difficult truths about American history and invites visitors to engage in the urgent national conversation around the legacy of slavery and race.

Item Number: 21686