Dolls of her own | Blondel Atwater creates unique representations of 'us'
When Blondel Atwater was a little girl, she would get into fights with her peers because they taunted her for not having a father in her life. To prevent the fuss and the fights, her single, unmarried mother told her to play by herself, and created a space for her in which to do so. In that space, Atwater made dolls with her hands, because her mother could not afford the manufactured types.
The dolls were now her 'playmates', who did not tease her, and with whom she did not fight. She had created her own friends, with whom she had a spiritual connection, in her own space. “The dolls were my company, I would talk to them, would play with them, would keep school with them. I never needed any outside friends because these were my friends.” Atwater revealed.
But how did she learn to make these dolls? She said she was never taught, her natural creativity just kicked in. She made them from scraps of cloth she acquired from a neighbour who was a dressmaker. Her artistry also evolved she said. It moved from stick dolls to one-dimensional cut-outs, to the stuffed three-dimensional types. For their hair, she used the strands from her mother’s mops.
“What I would do when she bought her mops, I would cut off the strings from the mops for the hair. She always wondered why they were making these mops smaller and smaller, and one day she decided to search a mop, and realised the inside of the mops were being cut out, because that’s what I was using to make the dolls' hair,” Atwater recalled.
But the dolls that she made were not images of the ‘white’ ones with silky, blond hair and blue eyes that were sold at Christmas time. They were representative of the people she saw in her community, black people. They looked like somebody’s aunt going to church, somebody’s mother going to market, etc.
And the doll-making continued throughout her life, but she focused mainly on the cut-outs of Afrocentric women. They were now much bigger and could hang from walls as tapestries. “In my dreams, in my mind, these are the people who surrounded me. Where we come from, originally, this is how we were dressed. We were royal people,” Atwater explained passionately, pointing to the well-dressed African women on her tapestries.
She has a sizeable collection of these tapestries. She just makes and keeps them, but from time to time, she would arbitrarily give some away to those who are fascinated with them. “I would not sell them, because they are my friends, so I let people share them,” she said, as she went through her collection.
Yet, a year ago, she started, again, to make three-dimensional stuffed Afrocentric dolls, and for her, doll-making is now a serious preoccupation. She does not plan to make a particular type, she just represents what she sees around her.
There are no two dolls that are dressed alike. Each one has a different style and essence. They range from the casual, to the cultural, to the formal. And when she realised there were only females, she brought the men, African princes, into the family to restore the balance.
And, interestingly, she said, though she has a connection with her Afrocentric dolls, being the Afrocentric woman into who she has evolved, the reaction to her dolls from many black people is very negative. Such people have associated them with witchcraft, while some white people cannot get enough of them.
“It was amazing to me, because my people shun them. They think it’s obeah, voodoo, but the white people, to them, it was art,” Atwater said incredulously, before she took a long pause, and continued with, “That is to show you how far removed we are from who we really are.”
But, where does Blondel Atwater want to go with her artistry? “I am just having fun,” she said smiling, “This fun for me, relaxation and fun.” And commercially? “It’s in the spirit. I will allow the spirit to take it wherever it wants it to go,” the mother of two daughters and a son said. She is in no haste to divorce herself from her ‘family members’ to whom she is spiritually connected. Among them, behind a closed door, in their room, she finds peace.