Arts·The World Of

Barbie can be anything — including a tool for black female empowerment

What if the world's most glamourous doll lived in Regent Park instead of a pink-and-white dream home?

What if the world's most glamourous doll lived in Regent Park instead of a pink-and-white dream home?

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. Fine Dining, 2013 (Courtesy of the artist)

As a little girl growing up in Jamaica and Canada, Rose-Ann M. Bailey didn't care much for dolls. 

That's changed. A lot.

The Toronto-based artist is all about Barbie, and Barbie (to paraphrase the old Mattel slogan) can be anything: an astronaut, a ballerina — or in Bailey's hands, a tool for smashing stereotypes about people of colour.

Since 2013, Bailey has been photographing dolls as part of a series called the BLK Ken & Barbie Project, and it all began when her friend and fellow artist, Frantz Brent Harris, was developing an installation involving hundreds of black fashion dolls that he'd collected or created over the years.

"I think it was the first time I saw a black doll," she tells CBC Arts.

"I'd never had black dolls and nowhere in Scarborough and Malvern did anyone else have black dolls. So to have something reflected back to me, I thought: 'Oh, wow! They're gorgeous!"

"I fell in love with what he had and started to shoot them."

They're Barbie girls, but not in a Barbie world

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. Dead Daewoo, 2013.
Rose-Ann M. Bailey. African Cuisine, 2013. (Courtesy of the artist)

In the photos, the concept is often the same: a vibrant, hyper-glam Barbie is thrown into a black-and-white scene. These landscapes, she says, were photographed around Toronto and her early childhood home in Jamaica. For Bailey, they're "so biographical."

And they're also thoroughly ordinary scenes of daily life, though situations can seem troubling or messy on occasion — Barbie goes grocery shopping vs. Barbie's car breaks down on Lawrence East, for example. Whatever the setting, she and her boy-toy seem way over-dressed.

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. Line Up, 2014. (Courtesy of the artist)

"The idea is that all the coloured dolls have this really over-empowered self esteem," Bailey explains, and she hopes viewers can see a piece of themselves in the pictures — a self that is proud and strong and confident, no matter what prejudices their (literal) backgrounds suggest.

These images, she says, are meant to start a conversation about identity: is the doll any different, any less empowered, if she's living in Regent Park instead of a pink-and-white dream home?

Seeing yourself through someone else's eyes

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. Home Girl, 2014. (Courtesy of the artist)

When Bailey started work on the series, she was finishing a master's degree at York University, and during her studies, one topic she kept revisiting was the idea of "double consciousness." It's a theory that largely inspired the series.

Roughly defined, it's the idea of internalizing oppression. As the theory's author W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, it's "the psychological challenge of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" — specifically racist, white others.

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. Bird of Prey, 2014. (Courtesy of the artist)

Through the lens of double consciousness, everyday life becomes a performance, one that's played for the powers that be — and Barbie's performing in these photos, too. Her body is thin and impossibly proportioned; her hair is often glossy and Euro-straight; and she's cast by Bailey in stereotypical black female roles: diva, jezebel, baby mama.

But those labels aren't necessarily a bad thing, Bailey says. They can be empowering, too — and their meaning changes depending on how you read the doll's surroundings.

Loving yourself, and your culture

"People might interpret [the pictures] as, 'Oh my god, that's a pretty doll, but the background is kind of messed up there, right?'"

The background shots, however, are all real-life places — locations chosen because they have personal meaning for Bailey, especially as they relate to her own sense of identity.

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. Church Girl, 2014. (Courtesy of the artist)

"It's about the environment of loving your culture," she says of the photos. "These dolls are saying, 'I feel good, no matter what my environment looks like.'"

"Your environment becomes a marker of who you are, and a representation of who you are. It's about being in your culture, no matter what you have on, and being able to say, 'I want my jerk chicken.'"

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. Sanctuary, 2013. (Courtesy of the artist)

See the latest updates to the BLK Ken & Barbie Project at Rose-Ann M. Bailey's website.

Rose-Ann M. Bailey. To Sept. 15 at Fuse Restaurant, Toronto. www.fusedining.com

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