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Persona Doll Project

Persona Dolls with the Beaders of Khayelitsha

Art Aids Art has undertaken a long-term documentation project to record the stories of women living in the townships near Cape Town. In general, there are few, if any, photographs in township households, and very little in the way written family history. Documenting the lives of these women is important for the nation, and especially for offspring, some of whom will lose their mothers to AIDS.

Art Aids Art’s Persona Doll Project in Khayelitsha was conducted with 50 local artists. Creation of persona dolls involves work with a variety of media to form a unique character, which in turn becomes the vehicle for telling a story. Dolls are ideal vehicles through which to communicate, depersonalizing memories and sensitive issues that might otherwise be difficult to discuss. The process is relevant for therapists, educators and human service professionals, with components including development of voice, identification with the “other,” and the exchange of narratives as a foundation for communication.

Women in South African townships suffer the affects of two separate but related crises. The nation has the greatest number of AIDS cases in the world at over 6 million, with women disproportionately impacted. The rate of infection for young females in Khayelitsha, where the majority of Monkeybiz beaders live, is estimated at 30-40% (SA Dept of Health, 2004).

South Africa has also been called the rape capital of the world, as over 1 million women and children are victimized each year (The London Times, October 04). A young South African girl has a greater chance of being raped than of learning how to read (BBC News, April 02). To add to the trauma, more than 90% of rape victims know their attackers (SA Press Association, June 2005).

Despite challenging circumstances, many of women have moved from tin shacks into stable housing with electricity, and have achieved a level of economic independence. Xhosa is the language most commonly spoken, although English is widely understood at a rudimentary level. An interpreter was present at each of the 3 workshops to assist with translation.

As with all of our documentation workshops, these persona doll sessions (April 06) represent an ongoing effort to provide expressive outlets to women with few opportunities to formally share their experiences.

Two workshops are conducted in a garage space at the residence of Matekiso Ngaka, a matriarch of the collective whose home in Khayelitsha serves as a gathering place. The third workshop is held at the Wellness Clinic in central Cape Town.

Figures with a variety of skin tones are available, along with clothing and adornments – sequins, buttons, pom-poms, feathers, shapes, letters, eyes and hair. Participants are asked to consider the following while making their dolls: Who, what, when, where and why? (in the local language, Xhosa: Ubani? Intoni? Nini? Phi? Kutheni?) When these questions generate some uncertainty, additional prompts are provided to encourage further reflection and greater detail in the responses: What is your doll’s name? Who is your doll? Where does your doll live? What are 3 things your doll likes to do? What are 3 things that make your doll special? What are 3 wishes your doll has? What does your doll dream of? In 10 years time, what will your doll be doing?

The meticulousness of the artists, honed through extensive experience with beads, is evident in each of the workshops. Interaction among the women during the creative process continued throughout. Responses are recorded through written transcription and videotaping, with translation provided as needed. Some participants tell their stories in a group setting, while others choose to share in private. The participants are given an opportunity to view the videotaped stories of those who consent.

Review of the collected stories is in progress. For more information, contact us at capetownshiptour@gmail.com.

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