For most of its 200-year history, the art of paper-doll making has not been flattering to black folks. Prior to the mid-1950s, white illustrators and publishers generally drew the rare black paper doll in menial or supporting roles, often as an appendage to a white family. Mimicking popular culture, images of picaninnies, sambos, mammies, butlers and maids—men, women and children dressed to serve—appeared in newspapers, magazines, books and box sets, on greeting cards and as advertising premiums. During the golden age of paper dolls, from the 1930s through 1950s, millions were printed.
As an avid paper-doll collector, imagine my delight to encounter Bling City Paper Dolls, a souvenir book of paper dolls by artist Bruce Patrick Jones, at the recent annual convention in New Jersey. The celebrated artist has managed to merge 21st century hip-hop culture with the historic lore of paper dolls. The bikini-clad quartet of black paper dolls, personifies the bling lifestyle of today's young, self-assured, upwardly mobile, creative entrepreneurs. They are effusive and vibrant and unrelentingly confident.
With bold strokes, Jones has captured the progress of a people.
Paper dolls date to the early 1700s. But the earliest known mass-produced black paper doll published in the United States was Topsey, a fictional character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1863). For the next 100 years, paper dolls generally depicted people of African ancestry in stereotypical and unflattering ways. With the sustained campaign for civil rights, landmark Supreme Court rulings and the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, more varied and realistic depictions of African Americans began to appear in the mainstream media. In many ways, paper dolls mirrored these societal shifts: integrated paper-doll sets, fashion models, celebrity and athlete paper dolls. But families portraying mothers and fathers, depictions of brides and grooms and historic figures remained scarce.
Bling City Paper Dolls represent a relevant departure from the norm because paper dolls are more than just child's play. Toys socialize children in the ways of our society. It is during playtime that children learn their ascribed role and their place, as well as how beliefs and values are transmitted from one generation to the next.
I first met Jones at the annual paper-doll convention in Cleveland in 2003, where we were two of the handful of blacks in attendance. An easy-going, bespectacled Jamaican who moved to Toronto in 1971 to study at Ontario College of Art, Jones developed an early interest in paper dolls as a child in Jamaica. As with many paper doll enthusiasts, his fascination began with an interest in popular and glamorous Hollywood film stars.
Drawing the human figure fascinated him because he enjoyed the power of creating a person, the 58-year-old Jones told me. He eventually created a sophisticated style that led to masterful creations that elevated the form above mere child's play to high art.
In March 2008, Jones was commissioned to draw the centerfold for Cornerstones' March 2008 issue, which publisher Deanna Williams devoted to the history of African-American paper dolls. He created a confident, ebony male in the buff, whose hands are strategically placed. Four outfits speak to his disparate histories and identities—a North African trader in robe and turban with rifle; ankle and wrist shackles, iron neck vise and whip; dashiki, jeans and Black Power salute with Afro wig and shades; and a black, power-broker business suit. The accompanying text reads: I've lived as long as I can remember. Slaver, slave. Slave to the rhetoric, slave to the man. It's been a long, long journey. But here I am."
Jones makes his living doing sketches and illustrations for viral advertising promotions; his clients include PlayStation, DreamWorks and AXE deodorant and cosmetics. It is in his spare time that he produces his exquisite paper dolls.
In 1996, he created a particularly striking Josephine Baker. With seven costumes based on her illustrious stage career Jones had aficionados oohing and aahing over the original Queen of Bling. He's currently working on the first paper-doll book devoted entirely to Baker.
Among his more contemporary subjects is Tiger Woods, whom Jones has drawn in his trademark red Polo. In another outfit, Tiger raises the Masters' trophy in a victory salute, and in yet another he can don a pair of fluffy tiger slippers. Another favorite is 2020, a futuristic rendering of a trendy black couple whose tattooed, Olympic-gold physiques and skintight gear, speak to a future where diminutive, sleek, fuel-efficient vehicles are the norm.
Like all toys, whether their intended audience is for an adult or child, paper dolls chronicle our social mores. On that score, Jones' work shows that even paper dolls can be more than two-dimensional.
Arabella Grayson is a freelance writer and paper doll collector in California. Her touring collection of black paper dolls can be seen in the upcoming exhibition "Paper Cuts: Two Hundred Years of Black Paper Dolls," which opens at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles in January 2009.