Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On 'The Dolls Speak' exhibition - by Rappai Poothogaren SJ

The Dolls speak…

Dolls are dumb. Girls play with them and they do the talking. Dolls are girls’ dream of playing mother –to be hugged and caressed, dressed, combed, fed and put to sleep by little girls. The plastic dolls have kicked much of that fun. Barbie is the ultimate anti-doll. The multi-national company does the dressing, combing etc……….you only pay cash, and plenty of it.

But Francoise’s dolls SPEAK. No, they don’t come with a manual of instructions, with ‘batteries extra’. Nor do you have to turn a key to listen to the squeaky, electronic voice.

Francoise’s dolls speak to the heart, by being what they are. The lives of simple people that they represent speak volumes. The agonized posture of the sexually abused child cries out loud. The washer-woman washing clothes evokes respect. The charred body of a victim of communal riots clamours for justice. The child with a little lamb creates tenderness. The young woman hanging dead from a ceiling fan fills us with anguish. The woman with a baby at her hip, and work tools on her head conjures up images of dignity among the poor. The rape victim, lying half naked provokes anger. The young man repairing a punctured tire for a living inspires respect. The woman hugging a tree, with a nesting bird on it, challenges us to protect and nurture Mother Earth.

Every single doll that Francoise makes speaks loud, and nobody can miss the message. As one looks at the dolls, she/he starts communicating, without words, heart-to-heart. If one lingers longer, the communication intensifies. Heart-to-heart conversations touch us deeply and challenge us to change –our thinking, attitudes, perceptions, prejudices, biases, apathy, values and convictions. If you ‘encounter’ Francoise’s dolls, you cannot walk away untouched, unchanged.

The dolls Francoise makes have no details of the face –no eyes or eyelashes, no mouth, no nose,….But their personality and identity cannot be missed. The dress, the posture, the gesture, the composition, the intricate details, the sheer presence,… reveal the person represented by the dolls, without a grain of doubt. Even more than revealing the identity of person represented, they give an inkling into the soul of that human being. Most of the dolls are not mere images of persons, they present you a life-situation –the tragedy that leads a young woman to commit suicide, the exhausted woman sleeping at the pavement with her baby feeding at her breast, the small boy polishing shoes, the Muslim woman covered in black head to foot, the woman reading scriptures, the drunkard beating up his wife,…. It is difficult for an open, sensitive person to walk away from a situation without taking a position vis-à-vis that situation – to appreciate it, to oppose it, to condemn it, to challenge it,…….

‘The Dolls Speak’ – the title of Francoise’s exhibition, and her book of dolls and poems by different people on them, is very appropriate. ‘Dumb’ dolls speak louder than sermons and speeches, deeper than articles and books, even more effectively than audio and audiovisual media. The very ‘littleness’ of the dolls reduces the resistance to the message. They are small, soft and delicate. Their message of humanity, justice, compassion, beauty and love is irresistible. Francoise has changed the meaning and role of dolls for me. Nobody would have ever believed that little dolls could communicate so much, to so many, on matters so vital to humanity in such direct and forceful way.

In November 2005, we had ‘The Dolls Speak’ exhibition in Ahmedabad and Vadodara. Thousands of people, young, old and in-between visited it. Their reactions and responses are revealing.

Francoise actually stumbled into making dolls. As a girl of sixteen in Belgium she was confined to bed for some months due to illness. To keep her occupied and entertained, her mother gave her materials to make dolls. She made tiny boy-and-girl dolls in plenty. Her aunt challenged her to bring variety and diversity into her dolls. Years later she came to India to live her religious life. Initially she made dolls for a Christmas crib. But she felt the urge to communicate her experiences of working with the poor in Tamil Nadu as a health worker. The dolls became her medium.

In her own words, in the introduction of her book, ‘These figure (dolls) are an expression of my integration in India. Each has a story to tell. Each one has a meaning for me. They embody and express something of my experiences, of my search, questions, dreams and hopes, discoveries, friendships, tears, protests, anger, prayer and celebrations. They are a part of me, and I, a part of them’.

Working in the solitude of the night, Francoise mould the intense experiences of her life into dolls that speak. It takes her 10-12 hours to make one dolls. In the last 2 years, she has made nearly 200 dolls.

As she says, ‘Perhaps figures (dolls) like these could help people recall their history of resistance to oppression; their struggles for life and dignity. They could offer us new levels of critical and subversive consciousness and new depths in our understanding of the mystery of relationship to one another, to the earth and to the Divine. Do they not pose critical questions to capitalism and globalization, and call for theological reflection on issues such as evangelization?’

‘They (the dolls) are parables inviting us to new insights and fresh commitments. To encounter a hungry child, to come across a beggar, is to encounter God calling us to work with him and assume responsibility. These figures could remind us that it is from the depths of people’s cry for justice and freedom and life that God speaks to us’.

~ Rappai Poothokaren, SJ

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