Saturday, March 22, 2014

Elusive Icons: Black Fashion Dolls 1968 – 2013

The Elusive Icons exhibition was a chronological visual illustration and comparison of Black fashion dolls over the past 46 years to the present. The collection of over 60 dolls showed the chronological progression of representation, from one doll to the multiple dolls with different skin tones and facial features presently available. In this exhibit an attempt to trace the development of a multi-dimensional representation and evolution of Blackness was made. The dolls exhibited were from doll collectors across Canada.

According to the exhibit's website, the collection created an opportunity to start a dialogue that empowers Black women. These discussions ranged from representations that many have never known or have ever seen before. Questions of race and identity are inherent in the collection of these Elusive Icons The exhibition was held in two other locations: School, Women’s Health in Women’s Hands- – a health centre catering to Black Women and Women of Colour, and the Brockton Collective gallery space, all during last February. The exhibit was very well received and was seen by over 500 people during its two-week installation. It is Frantz Brent Harris' hope that he will be able to install this exhibit in other cities.

The artistic vision is two-fold; a small part of Black History is exhibited - the progression of the representation of idealized female Black beauty by mainstream doll manufacturers. The dolls were displayed on a long zigzagged shaped platform, created to look like a miniature runway and were arranged chronologically by dates produced. Each doll stands upright, labeled with the name and release date of the doll. There was also a printed guide available to all, with additional history and significance of each doll. 

Additionally, Franz Brent Harris presented his own hand made dolls as his representations of feminine Black beauty. His sculpted dolls are a response to the current manufactured “icons” available which usually have an unrealistic and unhealthy body type. Black women possess a wider range of different beautiful body types, from slim and nubile to thick and voluptuous. However, most of the naturally occurring Black women bodies are not reflected in most fashion dolls. The dolls that he created possess an athletic body-type and project a healthy body image; this contrasts against the "anorexic" dolls produced by most manufacturers The dolls he has sculpted were placed on individual pedestals and dressed in haute couture designed by himself and project power and awareness.

Harris tells us about the reason for the exhibition: "Elusive Icons is about awareness. It is my hope that the audience viewing the exhibition will become more aware of their own beauty and relevance. A doll is an influential object; fashion dolls are the society’s representations idealized physical perfection. A Black fashion doll therefore becomes a very powerful form of validation, especially for black women and girls. This fact was evident from the comments I received from my two previous doll exhibits, most recently “The BLK Barbie project” mounted at B.A.N. D., Many of the Black women who viewed the shows had never seen a Black fashion doll, many were deeply affected by them. There is still the controversial issue surrounding the negative body image that most fashion dolls project on society. They are presented as unnatural ultra –skinny and large breasted body type".

"In response to this critique, to the absence of what I considered a normal healthy body type representation of a Black Woman, I created a doll that depicted just that. The dolls I have sculpted and created are my attempt to present a more realistic and healthy morphologies. It is my intention to represent the varied and beautiful body shapes of Black women. My vision is to represent and in some way validate the varied morphologies of Black women’s bodies. I am currently in the process of creating two additional bodies a slim healthy body and a very full-figured voluptuous body Presently, many representations of Blackness come from individuals who are not Black. I think it is of some significance that I am a Black artist presenting my interpretation of my own Blackness with these dolls which are loving portraits of my sisters and in part, myself. Black people have come very far, we make our presence and contribution to the Western world known. We are proud, our economic and political power has increased through the years. Observing how the representations of Black beauty, reflected in a fashion doll have also changed over the past 46 years is fascinating and illustrates our progress in a very simple manner. Recognizing our presence, the mainstream market has progressed from having only one Black fashion doll in 1967 produced by Mattel (Mattel is the maker of Barbie) to nine distinct Black facial sculpts by 2013, for that company alone, in addition to other companies, numerous other Black dolls presently are available".

Photo of first AA Francie from 1967 (courtesy of Fashion Doll Guide)

"The first Black fashion doll was merely a “white doll” colored brown, now doll makers are producing Black dolls that mirror our facial features and are targeting the Black consumer. The Black fashion doll is still a scarce commodity in Canada; a fact easily illustrated by my recent trip to Toy’R”Us and Wal-Mart where no Black fashion dolls were even on their shelves.’ Before sculpting my own doll I was collector of black fashion dolls for 3 years. During this time I sourced, purchased and gave as gifts over 75 black fashion dolls to school aged girls via friends and colleagues. Instinctively I sensed that a child having dolls, none of which had any resemblance to how she looked must be harmful in some way. I received a great amount of satisfaction doing this because the doll I gave as a gift was usually the first black doll they had ever received and became the child’s favorite doll. Always the parents of these children spoke their frustration of never being able to find black dolls. I think my belief in the importance of seeing and having black dolls is summed up in a quote below:
"Without dolls that accurately represent their own image, children end up looking up to white dolls, and seeing the white image as being powerful and what beauty is," says Phillip Jordan, author of a study on racial preferences among black children. "For children to have an image of self that is black and embraces your language and ethnic features is a very positive development." -The Guardian, Friday 5 October 2012
 One of the greatest Black leaders, Marcus Garvey understood this; in the 1920s the Jamaican pan-Africanist backed his African pride and self-empowerment movement with a factory line producing a black-skinned doll with African features."

I was not familiar with Frantz Brent- Harris' work at fashion doll. A commonn friend on Facebook posted the event and soon enough I was looking at some amazing dolls, all works of Mr. Harris, that are part of the exhibition. He is also a graphic designer, illustrator and sculptor. His line of 16" dolls is called Sonadolls and was created when a friend, upon seeing his doll collection, commented about the visible joints. Mr. Harris then proceeded in creating seamless jointed dolls.

Frantz Brent-Harris is Jamaican born Canadian Artist and Sculptor; his current focus is realistic figurative sculpture, fantasy surrealistic creatures and exquisite exotic art dolls. He has been practicing for over 20 years and his work has been exhibited in many galleries across in Ontario, these include Robert Langen Gallery (Wilfrid Laurier University), the BAND Gallery and the Canadian Sculpture Centre Gallery. Frantz Brent-Harris expresses complex and serious social and emotional subjects through his sculpture and simultaneous manages to seduce his viewer by creating a visually beautiful object of art. 

I was not familiar with Frantz Brent- Harris' work at fashion doll. A commonn friend on Facebook posted the event and soon enough I was looking at some amazing dolls, all works of Brent-Harris, that are part of the exhibition. He is also a graphic designer, illustrator and sculptor. His line of 16" dolls is called Sonadolls and was created when a friend, upon seeing his doll collection, commented about the visible joints. Brent-Harris then proceeded in creating seamless jointed dolls.

Since the dolls are all handcrafted by Brent-Harris, they come out in very limited editions. He designs and makes everything, from the doll and her wig, to the fashion and the accessories. The dolls have a very complex internal rod, spring and wire skeleton that took him 4 years to develop and perfect. The end result is a new invention, carefully designed to be break resistant and be a very flexible poseable doll.

His creative work with dolls began as a result of his need to find a resolution for his conflicted relationship with women, motherhood and femininity. Relating to and creating dolls allowed Brent-Harris to objectively observe women and provided him the insight he needed to embrace femininity as essential, beautiful and positive; thus, transforming his internal misogyny to appreciation and respect. This was a healing process for him and enabled him to fully own his own femininity. For this project Brent-Harris sculpted a 16” inch dolls to reflect a healthy athletic and respectful representation of black women’s bodies and outfitted them in fashions that represent his interpretation of the power and vulnerabilities of Black women.

Brent-Harris is currently in the process of creating two addition body types to more completely represent the different shapes present among black women It is his hope that viewing this exhibit will open the discussion on body image, sexuality, gender identity and vulnerability through a post-colonial identity.

All photos and information courtesy of Franz Brent-Harris


  1. Wonderful coverage of the Elusive Icons exhibit and on Frantz Brent-Harris's Sonadolls. I look forward to seeing the completed versions of the two additional body types.


  2. Great article about the artist & exhibition!

  3. Fabulous blog and photos. I will be following you, from now on. Thanks for the referral, Deja.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I missed this on FB - covers face - glad to see it here. I'll share your link on my blog.

  5. Wow they are wonderful! Great story...

  6. Thanks for sharing this exhibit! I love his Sonadolls.

  7. very interesting and very informative..thank you

  8. I want to know the names of the dolls in the collage! The doll in the pink collar/silver earrings looks like a dear friend. She *needs* that doll!

  9. Nice Collection you have....these are really beautiful

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