Topsy-Turvy dolls muse for Bethel artist’s self-exploration
They spar and smile. They come together and drift apart. They conceal and reveal — two halves forever bound. Their identities shift and transform based on their creator, an artist exploring her heritage, her personal versus public persona and her desire to get people talking.
“I’ve done them in different ways and iterations,” artist Nina Buxenbaum, of Bethel, says of her “Topsy-Turvy” drawings and paintings inspired by dolls of the same name. “When the figures are struggling, that is my struggle. How do I accept my own insecurities about how I look or exist in the world? What are the things I need to fight against and what are the things I just need to accept about myself and my experience in the world? I do think about all that, and it definitely comes up in the work.”
Scholars believe the dolls emerged on America’s Southern plantations in the early- to mid-19th century. Handmade, these dolls feature one black and one white figure joined at the waist. Flip the skirt to uncover one half and hide the other. (Later, these dolls were mass produced and served as a template for other conjoining characters, often from fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.)
There are many theories as to the purpose and use of these collectibles. Such multiplicity is natural, given context changes based on who may have made them, who they were made for and when they were made. Buxenbaum, 43, uses these flip dolls to explore how she expresses herself as a biracial woman, and in doing so, delves into the larger concepts of beauty, identity, femininity, race, class and stereotypes.
“None of us are one-dimensional,” she says, talking by phone from her Bethel studio. “We are all complicated stories, but at the heart of all of our stories are simple needs, wants and desires, which is for connectedness, understanding, love and a feeling that you have a purpose in the world.
“Somebody asked me if they were self-portraits and they are,” she says, adding that her models are family members, friends or other artists, with whom she identifies and shares common values. Through Feb. 18, her Topsy-Turvy images are on display at the New Canaan Library’s H. Pelham Curtis Gallery.
“There is an opportunity for people to see their own self-portraits in there, too,” says Buxenbaum, an associate professor at York College in New York City. “I think it is a little less challenging for people to understand the (idea) about connectedness, because even though some of these images are struggling with each other, they are joined in one figure. So, it is not one person, even if one figure ends up on top. … They are really connected. So, anything one does to the other is really doing it to themselves. There is never any winner when there is conflict. There are only winners when they come to some peaceful evolution, catharsis or understanding.”
Buxenbaum first laid eyes on a Topsy-Turvy doll as a child, while playing in her aunt’s house in upstate New York. She and her sister discovered it while exploring a secret passage that led from the second floor to the attic. The house was likely a stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of houses and routes that gave slaves a path to freedom.
It wasn’t until a residency in 2001, however, at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine, that the dolls emerged as a force in her work. Buxenbaum says the work truly began to take shape in 2007, the year of her first “Topsy-Turvy” show, at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, N.Y. By then, she was about 10 years out from her graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, and decades from her childhood growing up in Brooklyn. In those ensuing years, she had thought about how her identity had been shaped by growing up in a diverse neighborhood and in a home that was socially and politically active when it came to civil rights. Conversations of race and identity were common, given her mom was black and her dad was white, and had married at a time when many states still considered such a union illegal.
While at college, part of her work was juxtaposing black collectible imagery, such as mammy cookie jars, with African art objects. “It was about how white American culture depicted blackness versus how African-American culture depicted itself.” The work would evolve and become personal, as she grappled with questions of how she personally and publicly identified herself, and how others, black and white, expected her to look and behave.
Throughout, it was her intention to get more women of color into her work and expand their presence in the Western art canon, where they have largely been absent. “It is about celebrating the diaspora of beauty in the black community.”
At a recent talk at her show, it was clear by the public’s questions and comments that these works are being shown when the concepts of identity and race, safety and security, privilege and power are very much a part of everyday discourse. Buxenbaum, a guild member and teacher at the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan, hopes her works act as a conduit.
“There are more ways to see something than just one way,” she says. “And when we have a conversation, we start to understand other people’s perspective.”
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