Black Dolls, exhibition at La maison rouge, Paris, 2018

“Black Dolls”, curated by Nora Philippe, is the first time the Neff Collection is shown outside the United States. Comprising an outstanding ensemble of several hundred handmade African-American dolls and a set of photographs from the 1850s to the 1940s, this collection is of interest not only for the diversity and remarkable beauty of the dolls themselves, but also as an insight into the history of America’s Black population and of perceptions of childhood in America. In fact, these dolls could serve a variety of purposes, and some are quite enigmatic in this respect.
For nearly a century, between 1850 and 1940, African-American women designed and made ragdolls for their own children, or the children they looked after. Over a period of twenty-five years, Deborah Neff, a lawyer living in Connecticut, built up what is the most extensive and rigorously selected collection of these dolls anywhere. Where most people dismissed such objects as domestic artifacts of no great interest, Neff patiently tracked down these specimens whose beauty, formal diversity and originality – in short, whose artistic value – is so immediately obvious to us today. This collection is complemented by an ensemble of photographs and daguerreotypes capturing the reality of childhood – White and Black – at the time. These images speak to us about the children’s complex relation to their Black dolls.

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