Natalie Wallington, Staff Writer
Joyce J. Scott’s Ancestry Doll 1, currently on display in the Hutzler Reading Room in Gilman Hall, stares at a spot on the floor somewhere just beyond her pointed blue feet. Her pockmarked face shows a quiet sort of determination– although it is impossible to tell whether her eyes are open or closed, the plump furrow of her beaded brow suggests she is a far more serious entity than a simple child’s plaything. The doll’s long nose, pursed lips and large eyes mimic the faces of the wooden Ghanaian sculpture figures that serve as her legs, their heads sharpened to points in blue hats that form oversized, knifelike feet. The doll’s arms, by contrast, are Japanese porcelain figurines of white European children.
“What versions of truth survive, and what violence has gone into making them?” New JHU faculty member Danielle Evans posed this question during her introduction to a reading by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Colson Whitehead on Tuesday, September 25th. In an era when truth so often seems malleable by those in positions of institutional power, Evans’ question is a pertinent one in art as well as in politics. The truth within Ancestry Doll 1 indeed seems to be one sourced from violence; the physicality of this doll’s contradictions inspire a feeling of unease as viewers struggle to reconcile her serious countenance with her kitschy limbs: her lifelike posture with her impossible anatomy. We consider her intriguing, even beautiful, but we cannot imagine how she could manage to walk if she suddenly came alive.
A Baltimore native and internationally celebrated artist, Joyce J. Scott is the descendent of craftspeople from North and South Carolina who, in her words, “made a way when there was no way.” A Frankenstein figure of sorts, Ancestry Doll 1 combines these themes of struggle with elements of disparate cultures in a form that is structurally logical but thematically bizarre. The doll’s abbreviated hands, really the rounded heads of the two porcelain children, speak to the lack of agency afforded to diverse and multifaceted bodies as a result of white hegemony. The irony of these “arms” is revealed by the doll’s placard, which states that the porcelain figurines are Japanese in origin despite appearing Western and white. The feet of the doll, by contrast, are unabashedly West African. They stare upwards, perhaps contemplating the head of the body to which they are attached. These three faces– the doll’s own face as well as each of her two feet– dominate this piece, reimagining her as a silent caucus of figures.
Through her combination of human representations, Scott has assembled a multiethnic cast of “selves” within this single human form. The outsourced “selves,” however, serve to dehumanize the central “self” of this figure by rendering it unwieldy and impractical. Although intricately designed in their own right, the four limbs of this doll become physical hindrances weighing down the beaded body to which Scott has devoted such careful technical attention.
The towering windows of the Hutzler Reading Room bear crests of important University patrons and the cities from which they hail. Antwerp, Rome, Munich. Even for a fashionable study room of an institution steeped in historic privilege, the space in which Ancestry Doll 1 finds herself is very, very Western. But although her features suggest a range of foreign identities, the studious contemplation on her beaded face mimics that of the students all around her. In essence, she represents the power of contrast in a setting already deeply contrasted to her origins and intention, leaning forward in anticipation even as her huge feet belie any notion of movement. Much like Scott’s ancestors, this is a doll who ‘makes her way when there is no way’.