It began as a protest of sorts, an artistic counter to a scene Cecil Fergerson watched unfold on television one night about 15 years ago.
On the program, a black girl and a white girl were playing with dolls. At one point, the black girl passed over several black dolls in favor of white ones. Fergerson, a curator, who was relaxing at the time with his family, turned to his wife and said: "Something is wrong with that."
"I realized that images of what's good and what's acceptable to black people start at a very early age," Fergerson said recently.
So in 1980, Fergerson curated the first black doll exhibit at the William Grant Still Art Center, featuring exquisite works by such renowned black artists as John Outterbridge.
The exhibit, sponsored by the Friends of William Grant Still, has since become a mainstay at the city-funded center, a cozy, converted fire station at 2520 Westview St. This year's show, "Doll as Companion, Image, Treasure," spotlights the cultural role of 100 dolls from Africa and North America.
The dolls range from 100-year-old West African altar dolls, crafted from shells and fish vertebrae, to contemporary-U.S. stuffed female dolls nattily dressed in suits and pearls. The exhibit opens today and continues through Feb. 28.
James Burks, director of the center, said the doll show, which has exhibited as many as 300 dolls in its history, goes to the heart of African American culture: family.
"Dolls are family, like people's children," said Burks, who offered part of his own private doll collection for the exhibit. "They're very valuable in more ways than one. The exhibit gives people the opportunity to see different faces of black people they don't ordinarily see, particularly among mass-produced dolls."
For the show, curator Dorothy Taylor, herself an artist and doll maker, culled dolls from collectors throughout the state. Handmade works by local artists, including Taylor's rag dolls and vibrantly detailed clay sculptures by Bobbie Trinidad, are also on display.
The point of this year's exhibit is to show the varied roles that dolls have played, and still play, in Africa and the United States: as toys, decorations or spiritual companions, Taylor said.
She theorizes that dolls endure because they appeal to that part in everyone that never grows up. In teaching doll-making workshops at a South-Central Los Angeles alternative school campus, she has also found that they stimulate creativity that many students never knew they had.
"Gangsters who didn't even want to hear the word \o7 doll \f7 are really into it," said Taylor, who plans another exhibit of student works.
Some of the dolls in the exhibit are not image-boosters for African Americans. From the 1930s and earlier are Aunt Jemima and "mammy" dolls that doubled as whisk brooms and tea kettle covers, their faces swathed in jet-black fabric and their mouths agape.
"It's history," said center managing director Pat Taylor. "With these dolls, you can see how black images changed from one generation to the next, how things went from mostly white images of black people to black people's images of themselves."
Despite the wealth of black dolls created by black people individually, Burks says black dolls are rarely produced on a large scale and are thus still largely absent from store shelves. The self-image problem Fergerson initially observed in the young black girl many years ago, he said, is one that still must be addressed by the black community.
"There are a lot of positive black images out there, but we need more," he said.
"Toy companies like Mattel only come out with a black version of a doll every now and then. Why not have black super-hero dolls? Why not be able to play with dolls of your own color? That's what we need to see."