Doll Fascination in Oaxaca and Beyond

Walk the artisan lane at the Sunday Tlacolula Market and you will see handmade dolls for sale from San Bartolome Quilana. Their traje (dress) is a replica of the brightly colored floral head scarves and aprons the women of the village wear. Their embroidered faces smile at all passersby.

San Pablo Villa de Mitla doll made by Armando Sosa, Norma’s collection

Every culture makes dolls, it seems. Are they merely playmates for little girls or collectibles for adult women? What do they evoke? Is there some meaning beyond the external? Is a doll more than Barbie, the iconic figure created in 1959, that symbolizes girl as empty-headed plaything?

Everyone here, it seems, is making and selling dolls. At Arturo Hernandez’ weaving studio in Mitla, his wife Marta is making dolls to sell to tourists. In Chiapas, there are doll recreations of Sub-Commander Marcos and his tribe. Villages there make and dress dolls in their traje, too. Papier-mache doll figures from Mexico City city that look like puppets with floppy limbs depict street walkers, cherubs with rosy cheeks and glittery gowns. Giant dolls, called mojigangas — dance in front of Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo church for every Saturday wedding calenda.

Dolls from Chiapas and Oaxaca, Norma’s collection

Dolls are not frivolous playthings just for little girls, said Ellen Benson at her talk at the Oaxaca Lending Library this week. The room was filled to capacity with almost 70 people attending.

Ellen Benson with Keep My WiFi Working talisman

She explains. We call them action figures if they are for boys. In cultures around the world they are idols, effigies, saints, totems, shamans, power objects, and healers. Dolls are objects of cultural significance. They bring good luck, they are supplications for a good harvest, they are used for magic, storytelling and veneration.

A doll is NOT belittling and should not be considered as gender stereotyping, Ellen goes on to say.

She should know. She is a maker of dolls using found objects. She is part of a Philadelphia art group called Dumpster Divers. She calls herself a Dumpster Diva, and she calls the dolls she makes Divas. She combs junk yards and yard sales, piles of rejects, has a basement workshop filled with memorabilia, bottle caps, ribbon, fabric pieces, shards and discards. Her work is widely exhibited. And she spends two-months each winter in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Detail, paint brush legs and found objects, Ellen Benson dolls

Dolls are used in play therapy, Ellen says. They tell stories of women, men and families. They are memory prayers. They may contain herbs or medicine, or ward of evil spirits. In the Hopi spirit world the color of the Kachina signifies direction, ceremony. On every continent, native peoples created dolls from available materials to pray, heal, symbolize the resilience of people.

Ellen has favorite artists who has influenced her doll-making: Terry Terrell, an outsider artist from Seattle who uses texture, carved wood, clay, twine and beads. Betye Saar who depicted the Liberation of Aunt Jemima (below), set free from the stereotyped image of black servant, released from the burden of being a domestic. Hugo Tovar, whose lifesize figures adorn the courtyard of Plaza Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. Paul Klee, who made puppets for his grandson. Nick Cave, who creates images that obscures race and gender, offering the freedom to be who we are.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, by Betye Tovar

We need to take a broad view of doll as a human figure, offering protective power and meaning. Doll-making is a way, perhaps, of self-reflection about who we are and who we want to be.

Ellen Benson’s Doll Family — they belong together!

So, when you walk the Oaxaca streets, keep your eyes open for dolls. They are more than a thing of beauty or playmate for a grandchild. They are a reflection of the culture.

Papier-maché street-walker doll, Mexico

18 responses to “Doll Fascination in Oaxaca and Beyond

  1. Dolls also play a religious roll in Mexico. February 2nd is the religious holiday known as Día de la Candelaria (or Candlemas in English). Throughout Mexico on this day of the year, people, including men, women and young adults, dress up dolls representing the Christ Child in special outfits and take them to the church to be blessed, and they also get together with family and friends to eat tamales, as a continuation to the festivities of Three Kings’ Day on January 6. This is mainly a religious and family celebration, but in some places, such as Tlacotalpan, in the state of Veracruz, it is a major fiesta with bullfights and parades.

  2. I really appreciate your writing about Ellen Benson’s lecture, Norma, with all the photos and other information. I’m sorry I was distracted and did not go to say hello personally before the lecture. It is so special to keep in touch with the wonderful world of Oaxaca through your postings…leaving Sunday. Muchos abrazos, Eshkie

  3. Great article about Ellen’s great presentation!

  4. What a wonderful post Norma. I have a local friend here in Northern California who offers a doll and totem making project each spring in her studio. She encourages her participants to pour their hopes for the year into their creations. Dolls seem to represent so much around Mexico and the world.

  5. What a nice synopsis of Ellen’s dolls combined with your collected dolls!

  6. Norma! I remember the a Judith Radtke project in Miramar, which you also wrote about. Didn’t the women there create personal dolls as part of the project? AbraZos, francine

  7. The last is not exactly a “street walker” doll, although it is made of paper mache or cartonería. There is some dispute as to the origin of the costume (possibly from circus performers), but the dolls were made for over a century as cheap toys at fairs before the advent of plastic. For poor children, they were often the only toys. The painting on the chest was very important and often was the main factor in the price the artisan could charge. In the old days, a girl could have her name painted into the design.

    Their making as all but disappeared in Mexico City, but are still relatively common and iconic of Celaya, Guanajuato, which makes a number of other paper mache toys.

    I wrote about this dolls in my book Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta. I call them Lupitas, but go by many names depending on who you ask.

  8. Wonderful. Thanks Norma. You are informing so many people who are wanting to know!! Quite a legacy!

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