Home > Actualités > MDFDE/France Kudos To Deborah NEFF & La MAISON ROUGE, Paris for their « Black Dolls » Exhibition! #MDFDEJeSuisLadyLiberty132
Poupées noires à La Maison rouge par Le Quotidien de l’Art Vue de l’exposition « Black Dolls » à La Maison rouge. Photo : Marc Domage/La Maison rouge, Paris. https://www.lequotidiendelart.com/articles/11982-poupees-noires-a-la-maison-rouge.html


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Black Dolls


La collection Deborah Neff

du 23 février au 20 mai 2018/Feb. 23 to May 20, 2018

La Maison rouge/La Fondation Antoine de Galbert
10 bd de la bastille
75012 Paris
tel +33 (0)1 40 01 08 81
fax +33 (0)1 40 01 08 83
Contact : info@lamaisonrouge.or



Présentation : « Black Dolls » montre pour la première fois hors des États-Unis la collection Deborah Neff, un ensemble exceptionnel de près de 200 poupées noires créées par des Afro-Américain.e.s anonymes dans les années 1840-1940. Cette collection non seulement révèle des poupées en tissu, bois ou cuir dont la beauté et la diversité sont extraordinaires, mais elle raconte aussi une histoire culturelle, politique et intime inédite des hommes et des femmes noires américaines, de la maternité et de l’enfance.

Pendant près d’un siècle, entre 1840 et 1940, des hommes et une majorité de femmes Afro-Américaines, ont conçu et fabriqué des poupées pour leurs propres enfants, ou les enfants que celles-ci gardaient. Deborah Neff, une avocate de la Côte Est, a bâti en vingt-cinq ans la collection de ces poupées la plus ample et la plus rigoureuse qui ait jamais existé : elle a patiemment mis au jour ces 200 objets considérés jusque-là comme des artefacts domestiques indignes de mémoire, pour en constituer un ensemble dont la beauté, la richesse formelle, l’originalité – en un mot, la valeur artistique – s’imposent puissamment. S’y ajoute un fonds de 80 photographies d’époque, représentant des enfants posant avec leurs poupées entre la période de l’avant- Guerre de Sécession jusqu’au milieu du XXe siècle.



Black Dolls. La collection Deborah Neff – La maison rouge – YouTube


Les poupées noires, symboles de résistance des Afro-Américaines


In Paris, Black Doll Exhibition Explores Women’s Craft, History of Childhood Play, and Dynamics of America’s Racial Structure

by Victoria L. Valentine on Apr 11, 2018 • 6:58 am

EUROPEAN MUSEUMS ARE EXPOSING THEIR AUDIENCES to works by African Americans artists that reflect and respond to the history of race in United States. Two major exhibitions, “The Color Line: African American Artists and Segregation” at Le musée du quai Branly in Paris (2016), and “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” organized by the Tate Modern in London (2017), explored the intersection of art and politics during the Jim Crow, civil rights, and Black Power eras.

A new exhibition at La Maison Rouge in Paris presents art objects produced during an earlier period in American history. “Black Dolls: The Deborah Neff Collection” (2018) features more than 200 dolls hand made between the 1840s and 1940s. While the other exhibitions present works made by artists intended as art objects, these items were crafted as items of everyday play and companionship for children. The dolls are believed to be designed and crafted by African Americans, primarily black women, for their own children or for the white children in their charge, during and after slavery. They are objects of beauty, curiosity and originality, toys that speak to the history of race, gender roles, domestic relationships, and caregiving.

Hand made between the 1840s and 1940s, the dolls are objects of beauty, curiosity and originality, toys that speak to the history of race, gender roles, domestic relationships, and caregiving.

The selection includes male and female rag dolls. Few are baby dolls. Most are mature figures outfitted in a wide variety of styles. A good number of dolls wear casual cotton dresses or work clothes, with many different kinds of pants—cuffed, high-wasted, wide-legged and cropped. Others are nattily attired in fastidious ensembles with capes, long skirts, jackets, vests, bonnets, caps, and hats. The dolls were made with a mix of fabrics and leather. Some are stuffed with cotton, straw, or paper. Many are adorned using string, glass, metal, wood, paint, buttons, mother-of-pearl, and coconut shells. Hair is fashioned from wool, yarn, cotton and fur. Scores do not have any hair at all. The dolls have been handled and coveted and show wear and use, but the majority are in good condition. The craftsmanship is remarkable.

Over time, the one-of-a-kind objects have gained historic importance and artistic value as empowering forms of expression and representation during a time when black women largely lacked voice and agency. At least three artists are cited by name, Leo Moss (birthdate unknown-1936), Isabelle Greathouse (1856-1938) and Nellie Mae Row (1900-1982), but nearly all of the doll makers are unknown. The dolls are displayed along with photographs and daguerreotypes that document dolls from the same era. Many show black children with white dolls and white children with black dolls. The images provide context and cultural insights into their use and ownership and the dynamics of the racial and social structure at the time.

Installation view of “Black Dolls: The Deborah Neff Collection” (Feb. 23-May 20, 2018) at La Maison Rouge, Paris | Courtesy La Maison Rouge

Installation view of “Black Dolls: The Deborah Neff Collection” (Feb. 23-May 20, 2018) at La Maison Rouge, Paris | Courtesy La Maison Rouge

THE DOLLS WERE COLLECTED by Deborah Neff. A New York lawyer, she was the longtime steward of the Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and art collection, which is recognized for its “outsider” art. The foundation was established by William Louis Dreyfus (1932-2016), a billionaire philanthropist who designated the Harlem Children’s Zone as the benefactor of the art collection. Selections from the Louis-Dreyfus collection by Bill Traylor, James Castle, and Judith Scott, are currently featured in “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

As the Louis-Dreyfus collection developed, Neff’s own unique holdings were maturing. She spent more than two decades acquiring the dolls. She purchased her first doll more than 20 years ago at an Atlanta antique show. Starting a collection, was never on her radar, but eventually she owned dozens of dolls and then hundreds.

In 2015, the collection was shown publicly for the first time at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. The Paris presentation is the first outside the United States. Nora Philippe curated the exhibition a La Maison Rouge and Deborah Willis, professor and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, served as a consultant.

Two lavishly illustrated volumes document the collection. Edited by antique dealer Frank Maresca of Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York, “Black Dolls” (Radius Books) was published to coincide with the Mingei International Museum show and includes essays by Margo Jefferson, Lyle Rexer, and artist Faith Ringgold.

“Black Dolls: The Deborah Neff Collection,” the catalog that accompanies the Paris show includes contributions by Willis, Patricia Williams, Robin Bernstein, Madelyn Shaw, and Helene Joubert, in addition to an excerpt from a late 1970s oral history interview with Roe, the dollmaker. The writings in the book are published in both French and English.

From left, “Woman in Paisley Coat Dress,” First quarter of 20th century (cotton, 26 x 11 x 8.5 inches), Artist Unknown, United States. | Courtesy La Maison Rouge; “Early Gentleman,” circa 1860s (mixed fabrics, leather, brass, glass, 16 x 7 x 2.5 inches), Artist Unknown, United States, Massachusetts. | Courtesy Radius Books

From left, “Women with Red Boots,” late 19th century (mixed fabric, glass, 22 x 8 x 2.5 inches), Artist unknown, United States. | Courtesy La Maison Rouge; “Man with Cocked Head,” early 20th century (mixed fabrics, paper, 10.5 x 6 x 1.5 inches), Artist Unknown, United States. | Courtesy Radius Books

A conversation in the Paris catalog between Philippe and Neff explores how the collection came about, where she finds the dolls, and the intellectual and political significance of the objects. Selections from the discussion illuminate the history of the dolls, their symbolism, and the issues Neff weighed when she decided what to buy:

Nora Philippe: How did your collection start?

Deborah Neff: I found my first doll in Atlanta on a business trip. I went by chance to an antique fair, and there was this decrepit but proud-looking doll fashioned out of leather scraps, nails and wood; and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. That was 20 years ago. My reaction to that doll is the same as most people when they see the dolls, which is: surprise. The dolls surprise people because they look nothing like the stereotypical—derogatory—images of African Americans that pervaded American culture during the period the dolls were made. They surprise because they are so cleverly made (even the seemingly simple ones), because they are so expressive, and because they survived.

Philippe: Do you collect other things related (or not) to the black dolls?

Neff: I have a small number of works by self-taught and contemporary artists, and some textiles. I also have some white dolls, old and handmade and unusual for one reason or another. But my collecting is really about handmade African-American dolls, mid-19th century to mid-20th century. Not all African-American dolls from that period. Racist dolls have no place in my collection; they are offensive and without artistic merit. Everything I have collected, regardless of form, appeals to me as artistic expression. In the case of the black dolls, the artistic expression is made more intriguing because they are so unlike the ubiquitous racist dolls of the time. The African-American artist and activist Betye Saar, who is known for incorporating racist images into her artwork, saw my collection at the Mingei International Museum in 2015, and told me afterwards that the exhibit was “about love.” It makes me want to know: Who made the dolls? In what circumstances and why? It’s an untold story.

Philippe: Was your collection of photographs—which gather portraits of American children, especially African Americans, posing with their dolls and few images of Black Americans posing with their textile works—an attempt to document the dolls?

Neff: I hoped the photos would fill out the story, yes. I started looking for them maybe ten years ago. I had no idea how hard they would be to find. And I sure didn’t know they would raise more questions than they answered. All those African-American children with white dolls, and all those white children with black dolls. Across the years, and all across America too. Now I am obsessed with finding more photographs, for their own sake. I guess I am a collector at heart.

Philippe: Concretely, how do you find the photographs? And the dolls?

Neff: They end up in flea markets and estate sales and doll, folk art, and decorative art auctions, and they move up the chain up to dealers, sometimes high-end dealers. I have been identified so people bring dolls to my attention these days. Which is good for me, although getting out there and searching myself is part of the fun of collecting. Every time I think there are no more great dolls to be had, all of a sudden three appear. Good things always come in three’s, have you noticed?

From left, Cabinet Card (4.25 x 2.5 inches), circa 1910-20, Photographer Unknown, Carrington Family Album, Norwich, Conn. | Courtesy La Maison Rouge; Cabinet Card (5.75 x 4 inches), circa 1870-85, Photographer Unknown, Burnham Studios, Norway, Maine. | Courtesy La Maison Rouge

From left, “Brothers,” circa 1895-1915 (mixed fabrics, leather animal fur, porcelain, 25.5 x 12 x 5), Artist Unknown, United States, found in New Hampshire. | Courtesy Radius Books; “Sisters,” circa 1890s (mixed fabrics, metal, left – 18.5 x 7.5 x 5.5, right – 19 x 8 x 8 ), Artist Unknown, United States | Courtesy Radius Books

Philippe: So, who created these dolls? How can you assert they were made by African Americans?

Neff: The typical black doll has no provenance attached to it by the time it reaches me. But I do believe that most, if not all, of the dolls in the collection were made by African Americans. So much points to that conclusion, starting with the fact that, unlike the typical black doll of the time, there is nothing derogatory about them. But it is more than just that. For example, I have a few dolls made by the self-taught African-American artist Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982). Look at them and then at other dolls in the collection—there is a discernible common tradition linking many of them together. Then look at white dolls with white-made provenance and notice that—with some exceptions—you don’t see that tradition in my dolls.

I don’t know how to explain it other than to say that years and years of just looking at material can teach you so much. Then there are the experts in folk art or African art who tell me, for example, that this doll or that one bears a similarity to an African mask or funerary figure. Or that lack of symmetry—which is something you see in many of the dolls—is a typical trait in African quilts and other domestic objects, made to ward off bad luck. At the opening of the Mingei exhibition, an elderly woman came up to me and said, “I’m the only one in this room who lived this.” The dolls took her back to her own childhood; she saw in them the dolls she had played with as an African-American child in the early 20th century. Comments like this from people with first-hand experience are telling.

Philippe: The texts written by Faith Ringgold and Margo Jefferson which introduce the book dedicated to your collection, published by Radius Books in 2015, place the dolls in the context of a long story of invisibilized female African-American crafts, and explicitly connect them to resistance and empowerment. Do you see the dolls as political objects?

Neff: I believe they were efforts to convey a positive self-image at a time when you could buy only white dolls, or racist dolls, or black versions of white dolls (by that I mean dolls with dark skin but no other African-American features, such as the doll in the Fairfield, Maine cabinet card [ill. p. 22]). What do you do if you are a parent in that time? You have to make them yourself. So in that way, yes, the dolls were a political gesture. The fact that they are so varied ties into this. They depict not only the young and old, boys and girls, men and women, but also different types of dress, representing different social classes and both rural and urban lifestyles. You can think of their diversity, their plurality, as itself a powerful response to stereotype.

Philippe: These dolls appear before the Civil War, in a country where 14% of the national population lived in slavery, and where, at least in the South, almost 95% of the African Americans were slaves.

N: People tend to assume that all of the early black dolls came from the Deep South, the plantation world. We know that black dolls were being made in the North also, in free black communities or for the abolitionist cause. Keep in mind that many abolitionists were black. I have one doll [p. 133 (detail); 135] that has some history connected to it: someone made it during the Civil War to be sold to raise funds for the Northern causeffe. It’s a very respectful image of a black gentleman, a conscious effort to convey dignity. It’s also art.

Philippe: So they were not only toys…

Neff: But they were toys! Accidental art, yes – but first and foremost toys. An intricate combination of art and politics, but definitely toys. CT

TOP IMAGE: From left, Front detail and Back of head, hair detail, “Woman with Pink Pocket,” circa 1870-1890 (mixed fabric, leather, glass, 18.25 x 12.5 x 5), Artist Unknown, United States. | Courtesy Radius Books


Two lavishly illustrated volumes document Deborah Neff’s doll collection. “Black Dolls” was published to coincide with the Mingei International Museum show in San Diego. Edited by antique dealer Frank Maresca, the volume includes essays by Margo Jefferson, Lyle Rexer, and artist Faith Ringgold. Accompanying the Paris show, “Black Dolls: The Deborah Neff Collection,” includes contributions by Deborah Willis, Patricia Williams, Robin Bernstein, Madelyn Shaw, Helene Joubert, in addition to an excerpt from a late 1970s oral history interview with doll maker Nellie Mae Roe (1900-1982). The writings in the book are published in both French and English. Check with La Maison Rouge regarding availability of this catalog.

Detail of “Sock Doll with Red Shirt,” circa 1920s-30s (mixed fabric, string, mother-of-pearl, 22.7 x 7 x 2.5 inches), Artist Unknown, United States, possibly Iowa. This doll is featured on the cover of “Black Dolls,” the catalog published to coincide with the San Diego exhibition. | Courtesy La Maison Rouge

From left, Detail of “Girl in Gingham Dress with Bandana,” early 20th century (cotton, 22 x 10.5x 6) , Artist Unknown, United States. | Courtesy Radius Books; Detail of “Broad-Shouldered Figure with Leather Hands,” Fourth quarter 19th century (mixed fabrics, leather, glass, 21 x 12.5 x 3 inches), Artist Unknown, United States. | Courtesy Radius Books

From left, “Lady in Beaded Gown,” circa 1895 (mixed fabrics, leather, glass, paper, 25 x 10.5 x 9 inches), Artist Unknown, United States. | Courtesy La Maison Rouge; “Well-Dressed Couple with Painted Faces,” circa 1890-1910 (mixed fabrics, leather, left – 16 x 9 x 4.5 inches, right – 16 x 7.5 x 2.5 inches), United States, found in Cape Cod, Mass. | Courtesy La Maison Rouge

Installation view of “Black Dolls: The Deborah Neff Collection” (Feb. 23-May 20, 2018) at La Maison Rouge, Paris | Courtesy La Maison Rouge

Links: http://www.culturetype.com/2018/04/11/in-paris-black-doll-exhibition-explores-womens-craft-history-of-childhood-play-and-dynamics-of-americas-racial-structure/





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