J.E. has a tall (3.5 foot) fabric and beadwork African doll that her father collected in South Africa in the 1960s. He was working on a project that took him to Zululand.
This doll has a weighted base, and J.E. uses it for a doorstop. She is wondering if it is worth something. Yes, it is, and not only that, but it is also a great example of a mature female doll. Notice those two round breasts.
I can place it as made by the Zulu people of South Africa, who descended from the Nguni people of Southeast Africa. And I can be definite about that because I actually saw the doll makers of Zululand at work when I visited South Africa in 2005.
When my son was studying at Duke University, he was sent over on a collaborative program with the University of the Witwatersrand, and he was based in the Kruger National Reserve. I came to visit him and to visit my old South African college friend who was from Zimbabwe. When we left my son at the Kruger, my friend and I toured the 10,0000 square miles of the Zululand reserve along the Indian Ocean.
When J.E. sent in this photo, I recognized it as a Zulu female doll. And how elegant she is. I love the way the face is portrayed with a line down the middle of the face, emphasizing the forehead central area and the nose.
Dolls for centuries have been used as play things, but perhaps more importantly they have been associated with burial rituals, marriage rituals and fertility rituals.
To give you some context, let me give you some contemporary cultural dolls that answer to all those rituals. Think of a wedding cake. We place two dolls on the very top. Those are our marriage dolls.
Fertility dolls are those that have the most desirable baby-making genetic potential. (Think of the Barbie doll.) But because male fertility is not often displayed in American culture, we have only one representation, the female fertility figure of a grown voluptuous woman. Not so in African culture where fertility dolls are both male and female.
Doll making has been a tradition in Zululand since the 14th century. The artists of the doll, who are female, start with a frame of wood. In the case of J.E.s doll, the wood frame has a base weight.
The wood is shaped into a female profile. This can be a long, elegant shape of the hourglass form. Or it can be a fertility form, rotund and pregnant. It can also be a young female form.
You will notice that J.E.’s doll has breasts and long earrings signaling it is an adult woman. Most Zulu dolls are narrow waisted, tall and lean.
I was so impressed by Zululand’s many markets when I visited South Africa. The markets sold such dolls and the wonderful, beaded necklaces, and the electrical (colored) wire baskets, which are an invention of the 20th century in fine art. Such color I saw, and I most remember the yellow and red of those tiny beads worked into meticulous patterns.
Previous to this artistry of dolls, baskets and jewelry mainly created by the female artists, Zulu arts were military arts of the shield (often Zebra hide) and spears and clubs made by fierce Zulu warriors.
J.E.’s doll has colored beads, strung by hand on a rope, and worn as a necklace. Also, we can see everything is handmade including the fabric on the clothing and the twine embroidery around the doll.
Some dolls have caps of the auspicious cowrie shells, used in the early days for money. All have beadwork, and some have beadwork hairstyles.
A subset of the Zulu Doll is the Zulu Blanket Doll, which is traditionally a bride doll. It’s given to a bride by her new mother-in-law and father-in-law, and the doll is created in the bride’s likeness. The doll wears a blanket/cape — the traditional wedding attire — and a traditional golden circular necklace.
A beadwork apron of five panels, representing the gift the bride’s father, would have given of five heads of cattle as dowry.
This doll would also wear a wedding veil, symbolizing the division between herself as a maiden and herself as a wife.
I have seen similar Zulu dolls to J.E.’s, but none so tall, and therefore I would put the value at $600. Of course, because of its age, if sold at auction, it may sell for close to $1,000.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.