Over the past few years, I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of being able to travel from Australia to some very interesting places. Nearly everywhere I went I found dolls — unusual dolls, second-hand Barbies and terrible copies, dolls in churches dressed in exquisitely embroidered silks, and modern fashion dolls in one of the oldest cities on the Silk Road. Looking back on these wonderful times, I have been surprised and intrigued by all the different dolls I’ve encountered on the way.
I think everyone is familiar with the role that dolls play in the lives of children. Most of us remember our childhood dolls with fondness. Some of us still have those dolls as adults (like me, for example), but what I hadn’t really given much thought to before travelling was the universality of dolls. Dolls are everywhere and have greater meaning and diversity than I had realized.
In 2013 my husband and I first went on a photographic tour to India. In 2016 we went to Northern Guatemala, Cuba, the Caribbean, and Mexico City on the way back to the U.S. before heading home to Australia. In 2018 we were in Northern India in Ladakh on a snow leopard tour, and later that year we did a Silk Road tour in Uzbekistan, then went on to Istanbul, Athens, Crete, the Andalusian area of Southern Spain, and Barcelona. In early 2019 we did a nature tour in Sabah, a state in northeast Borneo. These are some of the dolls I encountered on the way.
Dolls in religion
Many of the dolls I encountered in the Caribbean and Mexico were very much a reflection of religious beliefs, although not necessarily mainstream or Western religious beliefs.
Dolls and Ethnic Identity
Everywhere I went, dolls were definitely a vehicle for ethnic identity. It didn’t seem to matter if the dolls were the most basic or even badly made, remote communities used whatever they could get to reflect their pride in their own cultures, and I totally applaud that.
In the Eastern Hemisphere
Just to set the scene, Leh is the capital of Ladakh, a state in the Himalayas of Northern India on the border with Pakistan. It is a garrison town, with an obvious presence of the Indian army. That means when you arrive and leave you will be searched three or four times by the army — the women by a female army officer, the men separately. Not a big city, Leh is an ancient Buddhist town with stunning Buddhist monasteries and quite a few mosques.
Most dolls in the last 150 years or so have become standardized due to industrialization and have largely reflected Western culture. That started to change in the last half of the 20th century. However, the three examples shown on this page are way out of their comfort zone, for different reasons. The thing is, dolls convey messages about all sorts of things, and that’s what makes them so interesting.
I don’t recall seeing a single doll in the markets on our Silk Road tour, but we weren’t in any modern parts of cities to any great extent, so that was not surprising. Uzbekistan is a secular Muslim country, so you won’t see women wearing the hijab, for instance, but there is a long tradition of not representing the human form in Islam, and in traditional markets there were no dolls, just traditional crafts. I can tell you the carpets and miniature paintings were to die for, and my dioramas at home are well decked out with these miniature paintings.
So, that is the end of my little excursion into the world of dolls when traveling. I loved every minute of it!
Julie Manley lives in Canberra, Australia and mainly collects, repaints, and sews for fashion dolls. She originally trained as a potter at art school and has a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Sydney. She has had two exhibitions of her fashion dolls in regional galleries, one for the Canberra Museum and Gallery and the other for Albury Library and Museum. She also travels with her photographer husband to odd places.