My doll, “Aunty”, by Paula Whaley
Now I rarely blog on Saturday outside of festival times, but today was an extremely special day. I helped out my dear friend, Irene Whalen at her wonderful store, Zawadi today. Zawadi is a beautiful place that sells amazing African masks, art, jewelry, textiles, African furniture and a whole slew of wonderful things. Just being there on a regular day is a treat to me but today Paula Whaley, creator of Oneeki Design and Collectibles came in.
Every year Zawadi hosts an ornament festival where the work of predominantly African American doll artists is showcased on a heavily decorated Christmas tree and throughout the store. This year as I was setting up to shoot photos of the even I spied this beautiful doll on the wall. I knew I wanted it. I have decided to cut back on spending so I had to think long and hard about this treasure but I eventually got it. I initially thought of buying it for my great-aunt of whom I was reminded and who raised me, when I saw her, but after consideration I acknowledged that this was really a gift for me (don’t worry, I got her something that she really wants folks). Now let me tell you about this doll, whom I’ve named Aunty, and why she was so special.
Me with artist, Paula Whaley at Zawadi, DC
My doll is a dark-skinned graceful beauty adorned in beautiful purple and white robes made of tissue paper washed in gold. She reminded me of my very own Aunty because of her beautiful dark skin and because purple is Aunty’s favorite colour. So I thought of this doll as an angel resting peacefully on my wall watching over my home loving tenderly as my aunt always has.
I researched Paula Whaley’s work and found out that she began making dolls as a means of dealing with her grief after the passing of her brother, James Baldwin. There was just something about the way she turned that deep sadness into art that then spoke to me themes of love and protection. Coincidentally, Ms. Whaley’s label is Oneeki, a Yoruba word she said she was given, that means “Treat her tenderly for me.” Her dolls are indeed items of refinery, to be adored and treated tenderly. More than that, when I had the wonderful surprise of meeting Ms. Whaley today, I told her about my work blogging on carnival. I shared my experience the first time I attended the Canboulay Riots Re-enactment at Picadilly Greens in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. That year (2010) Canboulay was scripted and directed by African-Trinidadian poet and activist, Pearl Eintou Springer. Ms. Springer had the wisdom to include the pouring of libations, characters and monologues that alluded to the brutal treatment African people suffered in Trinidad and who some of these women defended themselves as stick fighters – bois women. As one of the most charismatic actors spoke her part I was moved to tears at the thought of violence committed against these women during enslavement and the commemoration of our ancestors and celebration of our survival that is at the heart of carnival. It dawned on me then that deep within carnival is a true African wake. I explained this to Ms. Whaley and added that Trinidad had a strong Yoruba culture, so the fact that she named her designs in this way, given the shared history of brutality and suffering of Africans all over the world made it more meaningful. She told me that she channels the spirit of a relative for whom she cared and who also has beautiful dark skin, into her dolls – someone who knows suffering, and whom she has cared for and treated tenderly. In my telling a little bit of our history and culture, she understood why this doll spoke to me so strongly (I have to confess that I got a bit emotional she walked in and I was introduced to her. And she didn’t just greet me, she came over and gave me a big hug – then I got a couple more, bc that’s how good folks do y’all)!
So this is it for today. I am full now. I hope you are too and you treat someone tenderly.
If you’d like to purchase one of these rare pieces of art, there are still a few in this year’s collection at Zawadi, 1524 U Street NW, Washington DC 202.232.2214