Black Doll Show Inspires With Wakandan Heroes And Jazz Superstars : Code Switch For 34 years, the William Grant Still Arts Center in Los Angeles has showcased diverse dolls for children. This year's theme, Jazz Superheroes, incorporates Marvel characters and musical giants.
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Black Doll Show Inspires With Wakandan Heroes And Jazz Superstars

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Black Doll Show Inspires With Wakandan Heroes And Jazz Superstars

Black Doll Show Inspires With Wakandan Heroes And Jazz Superstars

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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You're tuned to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Going to a doll show is not really my idea of a good time. So I was shocked to find myself having a blast at a doll exhibit that's going on right now at the William Grant Still Art Center in the West Adams neighborhood in Los Angeles.

KEISA DAVIS: This is Nina Simone. This is Gil Scott-Heron.

RATH: This is the Black Doll Show. Curator Keisa Davis is showing me around.

DAVIS: We can start off with her.

RATH: So this looks like a conventional superhero suspended from the ceiling. She's got a cape. She's flying.

DAVIS: She's flying. This is Alice Coltrane. Her name is Harp. Her music...

RATH: She played the harp - Alice Coltrane.

DAVIS: Yeah, exactly, because she has a cape and because her arms are able to suspend, we thought it would be great to have her suspending from the ceiling. I love her up there.

RATH: The exhibit features dolls submitted by artists and collectors from around the country. And this year's theme is jazz superheroes and features more than 75 pieces.

DAVIS: Oh, and in here, we have a literal portrayal of music giants. They don't have capes or adornments or anything. But again, the idea's to use their talents as superhero powers. We have Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Holiday, Lena Horne and then Cab Calloway conducting.

RATH: Oh, there he is (laughter).

DAVIS: Yeah.

RATH: The exhibit was founded in the 1980s by the late Cecil Fergerson, who was the first black curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was inspired a classic psychology experiment - the Doll Test. During the 1940s, two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, set out to measure the effects of segregation on children, using black and white dolls. They found that white and black kids both preferred white dolls and tended to assign positive qualities to the white dolls and negative ones to the black dolls.

AMI MOTEVALLI: It wasn't just about education or formal education but about the education that we receive from our environment on a day-to-day basis.

RATH: That's Ami Motevalli, the director of the art center. The Doll Test was cited by the Supreme Court in its landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation in public schools. But a court decision can't alter popular culture or change how kids feel about themselves. So in the 1980s, curator Cecil Fergerson started the Black Doll Show.

MOTEVALLI: He curated this exhibition with a call out to artists asking artists to make dolls. And so every single doll was actually a handmade doll because Cecil's idea was that so long ago, people had to actually fabricate their own dolls. They had to make things out of whatever they had so that their children can have something that they can kind of use to comfort themselves or play with or identify with.

RATH: The Black Doll Show is now in its 34th year. Past themes have included dolls in space and dolls of color from around the world. For this year's theme of jazz superheroes, Keisa Davis tapped into a pre-existing world of black superheroes courtesy of Marvel Comics.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: The Black Panther is ready for you.

DAVIS: In my vision, we're working with a cohort of jazz superheroes who use their music to transcend injustice happening in Wakanda.

RATH: Wakanda is a fictional African nation, home of the superhero Black Panther, one of the traditional superheroes on display here.

DAVIS: So this is Black Panther's action figure, and this is Storm's action figure.

RATH: The show also includes comics and action figures donated by local collectors. Keisa Davis has brought Wakanda to West Adams and got artists from all over the country to create new inhabitants.

DAVIS: When are you going to have an opportunity to walk into a world where you have characters and superheroes that are of color and that little kids are going to be able to resonate with and feel empowered about? So that's the whole point, too. You're not going to find this at Target (laughter), you know?

RATH: You know, thinking about my own kids, I imagine that one point of frustration might be there are probably a lot of people that want to take these home with them.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, that happens a lot. Bur from our experiences, it's more so the adults that want to touch and take. They're not as bad as the adults.

RATH: And there's a chance for those who do want to touch and take to make their own dolls.


TERESA TOLLIVER: OK, watch everybody. Can I get everybody's attention for a second?

RATH: Artist and doll-maker Teresa Tolliver leads doll-making workshops. Here she is guiding children and adults, as they piece together dolls with recycled bottles, fabric, popsicle sticks and hot glue. They're making three different types of dolls.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I want to do the mermaid.

TOLLIVER: I know you do.

RATH: Most of the children want to make a mermaid doll.


DESTINY HILL: Now I'm making a skirt for her.

RATH: Destiny Hill is at the class with her grandmother. It's her first time at the center. She's making the mermaid doll and, like everyone else, she has a unique design.


HILL: I'm probably going to put on blue hair.

TOLLIVER: Isn't that wonderful? That's what I like. You see the smile on her face? That's what I like.

RATH: For curator Keisa Davis, this kind of engagement shows what locally based arts programs can do.

DAVIS: One of the girls who came to the opening - she was wearing a cape at the opening the entire night. And then the next day the mom contacted me and let me know that she was so inspired that she was, like, making dolls, drawing dolls and giving all the girls African names as superheroes. So that was really touching. And that's one of those kind of, like, you know, moments where you're, like, OK, this works.

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