A group of indigenous women of Noongar descent, in the southern wheat belt town of Narrogin Western Australia, are making cloth dolls from salvaged textiles. In 1994, these women expressed an interest in doll making. A craft residency workshop was organized, which included painter Pantjiti Mary Mclean, a senior Ngaanyatjarra woman, and me as teachers.
It was no surprise that the dolls came to resemble the iconic small dark figures Pantjiti painted to tell her stories of life as a young girl from the Western Desert regions. From the late 19th century the colonial government in Australia had a practice of removing Aboriginal children from their parents. Children of mixed descent were those most likely to be taken. Missions were established across the country and administered by various organizations.
Family connections, original languages and cultural practices were no longer part of a displaced child’s upbringing. When this practice finally came to an end in 1972 there were many indigenous people who had lost all contact with their families. It has been a sad history for these ‘Stolen Generation’ children.
These new cloth dolls carried stories the women wanted to tell and that had long been discouraged. Using black fabric for a body was in itself a major step; the expression of Aboriginality through the doll had never been encouraged. There was even an element of shame in such a doll.
Noongar elder and doll maker Jean recalled the small wood fragments, which mission girls used as comforting dolls. Anything would be considered a doll, a piece of stick, a clothes peg, or a stone wrapped with cloth. It was something to care for and play. This contemporary doll making allowed expressions of feelings about family, life, identity and going some way towards healing a fractured past.
In 2010 a younger group of women, those who were the children who watched their mothers stitch when the earlier doll making commenced in 1994, are now also producing unique dolls and are encouraged to attach stories to them.
The women meet weekly in a workshop space that becomes a hive of colorful fabrics, threads, and voices. On occasion there are teaching workshops, which help to refine techniques and encourage resourcefulness with the fabrics. In the making a figure shape is cut double or in pieces then hand stitched along its edges and filled with any material available. The figure is then be dressed or decorated according to the makers design. There are no patterns. Decorative elements, buttons, shells, and seeds are fixed in place and finally the maker may stitch a name onto the doll and it is then replete.
At present the economic issues are second to the benefits of making these dolls, which carry such personal meanings. They are a means of telling the wider community “this is what we feel, this is what we want to say.” Nikki, a fair haired Noongar woman made her first black doll, Mia, said of hers, “When I was a little girl I used to always have white little baby dolls. So when I found the black material, I used it. I love the little black doll. It is my first black doll and the first doll I ever made as well. When I was making it was like a dark colored doll, because Aboriginals always have a stereotype - you always must be dark colored skin and dark colored eyes and dark hair. And I got fair hair, fair skin, so this doll is about how you can be dark and represent a blondie with white fair hair. That’s what I did it as.”
The West Australian Museum is currently showing a collection of the dolls along with the women’s stories. The women are extremely proud of their dolls and are committed to a future where their doll making will be maintained. It has become an important aspect of their contemporary local culture. As Emily stated of her doll boodjarri jia, “Aboriginal sister growing up, she’s young and pregnant and she’s very proud”
Nalda Searles has been involved with the development of the doll making since 1994. She is an established fiber textile artist.
Community Arts Network of Western Australia, (CANWA), is the facilitating organization in this most recent development, supported by Lottery West and the Wheatbelt Development Commission to which Narrogin town is central.