They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and these ten blog posts would be nothing without their pictures.
These are the most viewed photoblogs posted on synkroniciti in 2014. We’ve also included a popular one from last December as an honorable mention. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether to classify a post as an article or a photoblog, but in general photoblogs have a large number of images, speak of those images and would fall flat without them.
Please click on the picture to view the post. We’ve reworked a couple of these along the lines of fair use and noncommercial use with regard to images, so if they look different to you, that’s because they are. Enjoy!
When a village or a city dies, nature takes over. One woman in Japan is attempting to memorialize her village and slow that process. The remote town of Nagoro only has 51 living human inhabitants, but there are over 150 life-sized dolls that call the village home. Mizuki Ayona makes the dolls in the form of residents that have died or moved away. They wait at the bus stop and in front of houses, even at the local school. It’s an eerie scene. You can read about it here.
The lamplight gleamed on the Magus’ white grin. “People like to watch the pretty puppets, Superior. Even a glimpse of the puppeteer can be most upsetting for them. Why, they might even suddenly notice the strings around their own wrists.”
From inspiring imagination to setting expectations and limits, dolls teach concepts like gender and class. What do they tell us?
Japanese worker woman with beautiful face made from gofun, oyster shell paste.
We can’t interpret our world without creating context, including scientific hypotheses and myth. Society shapes the tools and images we have at our disposal to understand our world, accepting some archetypes and rejecting others. This post focuses on images of girls and women as portrayed by the dolls of different cultures.
Making a kokeshi on a lathe
Kokeshi dolls originated in northern Japan, where they are still made from wood on lathes or potter’s wheels. Traditionally, these dolls consist of a simple trunk crowned by a large head. Some, including the pair below, have necks that are loosely mounted into the body, making them a forerunner of modern “bobble-headed” dolls. These bobble heads, or nodders, first appeared, along with body shapes that flare at top and bottom, in the village of Naruko.
The elegantly flared and belted body shape of this pair, the delicate crafting of their necks and the color palette used represent departures from traditional styles, which tend toward the sturdy and simple and favor bright colors. This hints that these were most likely made in the ten to fifteen years after World War II by an artist familiar with the Naruko style and were designed for tourists rather than children. This was the beginning of the sosaku, or creative, kokeshi, which emphasized the originality and style of the artist over the use of set regional forms.
Boy and girl kokeshi She has longer hair with bangs and a hat or bow on her thick topknot, while he has an adorable short bowl cut that flares out in all directions and tiny, pointed topknot. Facial features are identical.
The stylized foliage and flowers that grace their kimonos speak volumes to anyone versed in the Japanese language of flowers, hanakotoba. The boy sports bluebells, signifying gratitude, and gingko leaves, signifying longevity and resilience. The girl wears cherry blossoms, signifying gentleness and short lived beauty, and juniper berries, signifying fertility and strength in adversity. Buck up, girls!
Kosode made by Kojyo, 1970s or 80s The “hair helmet” has become standard on modern kimmidolls and the like. Kosode’s is special because of the striated highlights in her brown hair and the detachable red bow.
This is Kosode, Small Sleeves, created by Kojyo (Tanaka Shigemi), one of the most prolific kokeshi artists of modern times. Her stylish shape, with its triangular sleeved arms and ultra cute tilted head, became iconic among sosaku kokeshi artists in the late twentieth century and is still much imitated. Kojyo may not have created this template, but he certainly produced a definitive version. His son continues to make kokeshi under the Kojyo name. Her face and the front edges of her hair remain unlacquered, giving her a fresh and innocent air. We get the message that a pretty girl is like a flower without the use of hanakotoba.
Rasta or Sangoma dolls made by the Ndebele people Fabric is stretched over reeds and other materials, secured by the neck rings and then decorated with colorful beads. The white partitioning on the face is standard, as are the red eyes rimmed with white.
The Ndebele tribe of Southern Africa make dolls that serve to announce and prepare women for different phases of life, including puberty, marriage, childbirth, and the entry of their sons into manhood. The Rasta doll is the figure of the Sangoma, a wise shaman who reveals the will of the spirits and upholds order in the community. The woman who holds her has attained this special status and can be trusted. Ndebele dolls, who have long mandated viable paths to womanhood, are now important export items and a source of income and independence for Ndebele women.
Matryoshka These dolls are built from inside out, each shell made to fit over the smaller one proceeding it. The center doll is solid.
The first Matryoshka, or nested doll set, was made by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and Sergey Malyutin in 1890, inspired by a Japanese doll made in Honshu. In the span of a few decades the Matryoshka became both a traditional art form and an internationally recognized symbol of Russia. The name is related to the feminine name Matryona and is often linked with the Latin for mother, mater. Traditionally, the outermost doll is a woman. Her shape is dictated by the figures inside her, which may be of any gender and often symbolize children, making the identification with mother Russia even more profound.
The dolls that make up this Matryoshka are exclusively feminine and all of them are serving up something tasty to eat or drink. Even the baby offers a biscuit! It’s a colorful and humorous fantasy with a hint of misogyny, producing a bunch of kids from inside the mother doll, all ready and delighted to serve.
Ukrainian folk doll Her hat bears a red slash, signifying that she is a soldier with the Communist Army of the Soviet Union and dating her creation to the time before, or perhaps slightly after, its dissolution in 1991.
A well dressed, attractive woman with a gun would get attention under any circumstances, but this rosy-cheeked, red-lipped and blue-eyed lass with amazing eyelashes isn’t just carrying a gun. She’s got a rifle with a drum magazine and is standing ready at attention. This folk doll from the Ukraine means business! Would you want to antagonize women who grew up with this image?
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, she’s constructed from some interesting plant fiber. With the exception of the wood used to make her head and her rifle as well as a bit of thread and rick-rack trim for color, she’s made entirely from hemp. Yes, friends, she’s 90% cannabis: woven, glued, pressed into mats, tied into arms and legs, and curled into hair. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine used to grow a large share of the world’s cannabis. Some people are so uncreative as to think it’s only good for smoking, but hemp fibers make much better dolls than brittle straw!
Toluca bandita She’s laden with ammunition but lacks a gun. What does this imply about her effectiveness and expendability?
This bandita hails from the city of Toluca, capital of the state of Mexico (not the nation). Her head is constructed from a small gourd covered in fabric, painted and lacquered, which accounts for the delightful chubby cheeks, while her hair is made from a horse’s mane. Her dress and sandals show diligent craftsmanship, and her ammunition belt is cleverly cut from corrugated cardboard. The genius of this doll is in economy and ingenuity.
Recent massacres in Mexico State have been perpetrated by cartel killers that include a 15 year old girl. One wonders if she played bandita growing up. There’s nothing wrong with playing bandita, unless you forget that you are playing. Dolls and doll makers can’t be held accountable for how we internalize their creations, but those images can be powerful when combined with experience.
I leave you with a few more images. The last one is perhaps my favorite; she’s got more character than any beauty queen.
Lady General Mou, Chinese silk doll, 1996. Silk over wire.
Mou Gwey Yin is a historical figure from the Song Dynasty, the daughter of a General that grew to be a formidable General herself. She remains an inspiring figure for Chinese women and has been given a treatment here that borders on the mythical, Chinese Opera style.
Colorful Mexican weaver woman Beautifully constructed from painted Papier Mâché, folded and lacquered paper, thread and textile remnant. Another economical and ingenious creation. Weaving is pictured across Central and South America as a suitable and honorable occupation for women.
Japanese geisha doll gofun face, beautiful robes and hairstyle. Geishas are difficult concepts for Westerners. Being companions and helpmeets for men in addition to their wives, they can attain positions of honor in the community while not being accepted as family. They are required to be beautiful and pleasing.
Hand drum playing lady, Chinese silk The delicate nature of the highborn lady, who would have had tiny, broken feet, necessitated that she not be overtaxed. This doll is similarly delicate and very light.
An Island Woman made by Scottish artist Sheena MacLeod. The beauty of this woman lies in her rugged strength, revealed in her hands, thickened by work with fishnets and graced with a simple wedding band, and her face, roughened by sea spray. She also has a slight stoop. This is a figure of a real woman, with no apologies or excuses.
He is the intermediary between us, his audience, the living, and they, the dolls, the undead, who cannot live at all and yet who mimic the living in every detail since, though they cannot speak or weep, still they project those signals of signification we instantly recognize as language.
―Angela Carter, The Loves of Lady Purple, from Wayward Girls and Wicked Women
Ethnic dolls have much to do with memory and the interpretation of the past. They codify values, dress, gender roles, and appropriate occupations for the culture they represent– or at least someone’s ideas about those things. You can learn a great deal about a culture by studying its dolls. Here are some of the most photogenic figures from my own collection.
This first installment is all about dolls that move or look like they are in motion. It’s been so much fun for me to research my collection that I’ve decided to extend the doll theme to bring you more pictures and more detail.
This is a gorgeous puppet doll from Thailand made from wood and and string covered with a sumptuous costume and painted features. The character is called Zawgyi, the Shaman or the Alchemist. He’s a superhero who can fly and bore into the earth without the aid of tools. Deep in the Himalayan forest he dwells alone, having obtained the mythical Philosopher’s Stone that can turn base elements into gold. Appealing to the imagination and encouraging perseverance when faced with an impossible task, he also has an occult side which allows him to conjure females from the trees when he’s lonely. Designed to imitate the movements of Burmese dance, this puppet is operated with five strings. One string connects the hands, one the feet, one the knees and two the head. The extreme mobility of the head adds to the expressivity of the face, which is already fantastic.
Next is El Borracho, the drunk. This whimsical Mexican puppet is cut from a completely different cloth, very simple and crude. The visible body is plastic painted to look like papier mâché and is attached to a lightweight wooden block covered with cloth. He’s operated by the use of three strings, one for the left side, one for the right and one for the head. The awkwardness this produces mimics intoxication. There’s a touch of schadenfreude here, but the humor is infectious.
The puppet below is from the wayang golek tradition of Java, Indonesia, which lies at the intersection of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic cultures. Many Sundanese people are Muslim, but their culture blended with earlier traditions to make space for puppets like the wayang golek, which are representations of the human form and thus banned in conservative Islamic societies. The shapely and exotic upper torso and head pieces are supported on a central rod or stake which can be inserted into a base to keep it still. This stake is covered by a long skirt of fabric. Jointed arms are attached by string to the body as well as to thin poles which are used to move them, creating expressive gestures. The head is able to swivel quickly by rotating the center rod and the chest can lift and fall, making the wayang golek an ideal puppet for portraying temper tantrums and extreme emotions.
Wayang golek Prince
Princes, such as the character we see here, are identified by the shape of their headdress and by their white skin, which symbolizes moral integrity. If they didn’t possess integrity, they and their descendants had enough power and money to assume the semblance of it. Red faces are reserved for evil and angry characters. In the West we like to talk about seeing things in black and white, but Indonesians see things in white and red.
The Aomori Nebuta Festival in Japan celebrates a legendary battle, although there is no agreement over which battle. In fact, this battle may never have happened or may have happened far away from Aomori City. It’s still a good excuse for a party and a morale boost, even if everyone has forgotten the event that sparked it. At the festival, which draws an average of 3 million people each year, Haneto dancers like this one jump and dance in front of immense decorated and lighted floats shouting Rassera, a word of uncertain origin. These dolls are handmade for the Aomori Festival, made from igusa reeds and cloth. They all look as if they are about to skip and leap away.
Nebuta Haneto dancer
Speaking of dancers, here is a pair of Polish youth from the Krakow region. Note the exquisite detailing of their clothing, which represents a way of dress that dates back centuries and is still worn on ceremonial occasions. Every element is dictated by this tradition and the ensemble is easily recognized by people who have roots in the area. This couple is not married, as the girl wears a flower wreath with ribbons instead of the white kerchief of a married woman. The girl’s bodice, designed to imitate beading and embroidery, is painted, as are the tiny roses on her skirt, barely visible under her lacy apron. The tiny tassels and gold trim on his classic blue waistcoat, as well as his striped trousers, are equally delightful and correct. I love that each dancer has only one foot attached to the base, while the other floats in midair.
Dancing couple from Krakow, Poland
Buchaechum is a Korean dance in which young women use brightly colored fans to imitate natural phenomenon such as flocks of birds, fields of flowers, flights of butterflies and waves. It synthesizes traditions that are centuries old by combining shamanic dance, which established mystical links with nature, and court performance, which celebrated beauty and refinement. The result is enchantment. Dancers wear the traditional hanbok, consisting of jeogori, a blouse or jacket, and chima, a wrap-around skirt. The ensemble is characterized by high waist and vibrant color. This particular set of dolls, made from plastic, fur and fabric with a styrofoam underbody, was made by the Korean Arts company, founded in 1999, and espouses a stylized face and body that was prevalent in the 1960s and 70s.
Korean fan dancers
The Navajo reservation is in the Four Corners area of the United States, where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. Stepping onto the reservation is stepping into another culture, another nation with its own rules, values and sense of community. The kachina below is a Navajo corn yei, a spirit that helps humans by making the corn to grow and ripen. He’s a member of the Diyin Diné’e, the Holy People, who personify the forces of nature. Arms outstretched and knees bent to stomp the ground, this yei is doing a traditional dance that costumed men, who believe they are transformed into kachina themselves while they dance, perform to ask for a good harvest. He’s made of light wood which has been painted and decorated with animal fur and a felt skirt with yarn belt. It is amazing to me that static figurines are used so often and so effectively to illustrate movement– almost as amazing as how well they establish and promote a communal sense of identity.
Please enjoy the delightful video below showing the construction of a Japanese Ichimatsu doll. Even without the ability to read the subtitles I was moved by the process and the craftsmanship involved. Such detail! No wonder these handmade dolls, or ningyo, human forms, can be extremely expensive, especially if they were made in an earlier century. These ningyo are perfectly proportioned representations of little girls and boys, with glass eyes and beautiful skin. This skin is created by covering the clay body, which must first be molded, fired, and cooled, with layers of gofun, a paste made from powdered oyster shell and animal glue. It hardens into an incredibly smooth and white surface, which can then be worked and painted to magical effect. Ichimatsu dolls are not the only ningyo covered with gofun, which graces the faces and hands of many figures, from babies to townspeople, geishas, emperors and empresses.
Video via shibuya246com on YouTube. Stay tuned for a photoblog featuring more ethnic dolls.