Black Doll Makers
Gibbs: Ms. Gant, you're a maker of quality Black dolls; what significance does Black History Month have on your doll making, on black purchases of your dolls?
Ms. Gant: The importance of Black History Month is that it is a continual reminder to Blacks, that we have a place in history, that we do have things important in our history that we need to be reminded of. It's a shame that it is just one month; I would like to see the interest that is held for Black history this month, held the entire year.
Gibbs: You make artistic works that are beautiful, but your patrons are usually white. How do you get Blacks to appreciate your work and your dolls so that they become patrons too?
Ms. Gant: It's difficult to do, but I think Blacks have always enjoyed things that represent them and their culture, but getting them to make the leap to purchase and hold on to this art &I think, it revolves around education and somehow continuing to teach them that this is what you need to have in your homes; this is what you need to let your children see. It is important to let the younger generation see that Black dolls are important enough to purchase and put in their homes, letting the family see something of themselves that is cherished and passed on to the next generation of family members. These are heirlooms, but until we recognize that they are heirlooms, rather than something we look at and say that's nice, we won't cherish them.
Gibbs: Do you think it would be of value to the segment of our community that does not value this art form correctly to show them what values others are placing on this art?
Ms. Gant: I don't think Blacks make any connection between these dolls and how whites or others view art. I think we must find something in us, as a people, to make us have the desire to collect them, want to own them, and purchase them.
Gibbs: How do your dolls differ from the historical Black dolls?
Ms. Gant: Many of the dolls I have seen representing African American culture, represented us in a negative way. But when I look around at Black people, I see wealth, status, artful people, intelligence, and a desire for a better life. I look at our dress and see a glamorous and fashionable people. It's important to me, as an African American Doll maker, that my dolls reflect what I see in our people. So my dolls reflect the best, the desire to be the best. I make them glamorous and posed in manners that say, I know who I am, and I know where I am going. Black people can see themselves today in my dolls.
Gibbs: What is the philosophy behind your doll making?
Ms Gant: Doll making is interesting. When I start making a doll, I have my own idea of what I want it to look like. However, as I make the doll, it seems to take over from my original intent. It may differ from the character and nature I originally intended for it. It has a life of its own sometimes. My family has been important in my art. Sometimes, I see traits of them in my work, and they will comment on that. I take from my family experience and the people I see to develop my dolls.
Gibbs: Isn't that what writers and all artists do?
Ms. Gant: Maybe, but I have concepts of dolls that I play around with in my head. One I am now playing around in my head is called, To Hell and Back. It is clear that she was once a beautiful angel. You look at her dress, and it is now tattered; her clothes are covered with soot; one of her wings is broken, and her halo is bent and hanging over one eye. [Ms. Gant's voice cracks with emotion, as she describes this concept] She is just sitting with her arms down to her sides, and the look on her face says: "What the hell happened?" I keep asking myself, "Where did that come from?" In my mind, this doll had once been an angel who had taken a trip, because of curiosity, and had barely made it back.
Gibbs: Do you think your art can educate the Black community on where we are in our long struggle in America?
Ms. Gant: Yes. I think my art tells us, although we live in the present, we have not forgotten about the past, and we are looking forward to the future.
Gibbs: In the field of Black Doll Making, where is the art going?
Ms. Gant: I think, among certain groups of African Americans, the doll-making field is very much appreciated, and they purchase them. In the South, for instant, doll making and doll collecting are highly appreciated--more than in any other place, I hear. Maybe I should do some traveling. I am a Californian, born and raised here, maybe too long, and my views are somewhat slanted. But my dolls reflect my parents and their teaching as well; they came from Oklahoma.
Gibbs: Your dolls seem to be modern dolls that reflect Blacks success. Are there artists who focus on certain periods, classes, or politics?
Ms. Gant: I don't know if there is a concentration on any of those aspects. I think it depends on the artist and what is coming out of that artist. I know several artists who reflect everything African-head wrap, fabric that is African, and never any recognition of European styles or influences. One artist I am thinking about comes from the Islands; she lives in the Bay Area. Her art is reflective of her perception of history, more than any current political view. There are other artists who live in the Bay Area and don't seem to reflect anything in particular. The point is this, for some, doll making may be a political statement, for others it is not. For me, it is the art of the doll making. Of course, my values are embedded in my dolls, as are other artists.
Gibbs: Do you accept commissioned work?
Ms. Gant: Yes. One would tell me what he/she wants, giving me as many aspects as possible-- the size, color, skin tone, the clothing desired, any reflective nature the doll should have, any photographs that may give the idea they want the doll to embody. For commissioned works, a 50% deposit is required to start the work.
Gibbs: Thank you for this interview.
[Ms. Gant is a member of American Black Beauty Dolls Club and Flying Phoebe. She has been making dolls for six years. She has been a fashion designer and a graphic artist].