Arts and Entertainment

I Never Played With Dolls

A review of Sana Musasama’s ongoing show, “I Never Played With Dolls,” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Gallery.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

From the plain exterior, one wouldn’t expect the intricate works housed inside Tiger Strikes Asteroid Gallery, a small artist-run space nestled in Bushwick. But Sana Musasama’s “I Never Played With Dolls” is nothing short of incredible. Musasama works with clay, a medium she has felt connected to since her youth. Her work is centered on the experiences of women from all around the world and her personal connection to them, covering a range of topics from female genital mutilation to the lost voices of victims of the Holocaust and 9/11. Her work typically uses symbolism and abstraction to amplify its themes, but this exhibit differs greatly from Musasama’s more abstract work, depicting women directly with a more stylized and realistic approach.

A primary focus of “I Never Played With Dolls” is the Topsy-Turvy dolls, which derive from antebellum dolls. Because owning dolls in their own likeness was prohibited by slave masters, enslaved women would make dolls with a white head on one side and a black head on the other so that their daughters could have a doll that represented them, but was easy to hide in order to stay out of harm’s way. Musasama’s take on Topsy-Turvy Dolls depicts influential women from around the world in historically accurate attire specific to each woman. She worked with groups of people to create each dress using recycled materials. Each woman is coupled with another like herself, or two versions of the same woman are combined and juxtaposed to show different aspects of her identity. For instance, one doll shows Helen Keller with her lifelong mentor on her flipside, and another fuses two versions of Michelle Obama: the effective, political First Lady and the gardener who helps children.

Of all the Topsy-Turvy dolls on display, the most evocative was that of the girl soldier. Musasama described the process of kidnapping and breaking the will of a child, how girls are brutally raped and forced to kill their own families. Her dress on the “before” side is filled with bright and colorful reds and oranges, which quickly turns to the same girl with an empty expression, a crown of bullets, and a camouflage dress hemmed with guns. She points her own gun at the viewer of the piece, forcing them to confront the violence that she has endured.

The other type of Musasama’s dolls focuses on self-representation. They carry a much more personal message from her childhood, depicting her experiences in a 1950s American military community. Musasama spoke about feeling undesirable growing up and hating her features because boys in her community preferred light-skinned girls. When she expressed this to her mother, they sat together for hours, an unusual occurrence in their busy home. Together, they made a doll that bore resemblance to Musasama, one that made her feel beautiful, hence the name “I See Me.” She spoke about how the doll was a step closer to loving her nose, lips, and hair. In her later recreations of the original doll, she uses the raku firing method to create color in the piece, a technique where ceramic is removed from the kiln while it’s still red hot and placed in flammable material like sawdust or newspaper to create markings. The dolls are either prepubescent or entering puberty like Musasama was at the time, and each doll’s hair is adorned with colorful paper beads that she learned to make in Cambodia.

Sana Musasama is a woman with an incredibly powerful set of life experiences, and she’s always willing to learn and share her wisdom. The space her work occupies amplifies her voice, as there’s no wall of text to follow for explanations of her dolls. Instead, she is physically there in the gallery, personally speaking about her work and her connection to each piece, creating an interpersonal connection between art, artist, and viewer. Each piece is visually captivating, with distinct and beautiful qualities that pull the viewer in. “I Never Played With Dolls” is a uniquely transfixing must-see for any and all sculpture fans.