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Cultural Makeup

Her demonstration almost complete, Reiko Nishioka begins taking the pins out of the dolls. No, this is not some kind of voodoo ritual going on here; Nishioka is director of education at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach, and she's explaining the cultural underpinnings of cloth dolls to a visitor. She's just finished dressing each doll in traditional Japanese or African clothing, and now she's removing the clothes to show that -- beneath the various fabrics -- all the dolls look the same.

Universal brother- and sisterhood is just one of the many lessons Nishioka hopes to teach during the multicultural doll-making workshops at the museum August 29 and September 18. She'll join forces with African-American doll maker and art teacher Kianga Hanif of Wellington and show students how to clothe and adorn a pair of friendship dolls -- one Japanese, one African -- during the two-hour workshops. Participants will begin the project with two identical, five-inch-tall, cloth dolls whose cultural differences will only become apparent after they've been dressed.

Because summer is a big season for festivals in Japan, one of the dolls will be clad in Japanese garb worn for such occasions. Nishioka will show neophyte doll makers how to put together an outfit consisting of hanten, tenugui, and uchiwa. A hanten is a kimono-style short jacket -- called a "happi coat" by Westerners -- worn primarily by workmen; the workshop versions are navy blue with white writing or symbols. Usually worn as a headband during festivals, a tenugui is a cotton towel decorated with polka dots, pictures, writing, or advertising. An uchiwa is a flat fan made of paper glued over a split bamboo framework; it's used exclusively in summertime.

The African doll, on the other hand, will leave a little more room for imagination. Hanif will provide a selection of authentic African fabrics from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Mali, and Nigeria. She usually wraps each piece of fabric into a dress typical of the cloth's region of origin, demonstrates several techniques used to attach hair, and shows students how to do a head wrap. She then lets them loose to determine their own combinations. By mixing their chosen fabrics with hair materials, beads, and bangles, doll makers get to explore a wide range of African heritages.

Once they've outfitted the dolls, participants will take them home. The workshops, intended for students age eight and older, are being held in conjunction with the current exhibition at the Morikami, "Cultural Tales: The Art of Japanese Handmade Dolls by Group Kaze." Kaze is a collective of doll masters trained at the French-based Japonaise École de Poupée.

The show consists of 50 works. Some pieces are individual dolls, and others are sets of figures. All of the dolls depict traditional and contemporary customs and manners: children at play, urban and rural street scenes, characters from well-known plays and novels, and family groups celebrating weddings and festivals.

Perhaps the most fascinating Kaze specimens, however, are the dolls wearing the least amount of clothing: the almost-nude tattooed men. The two male figures -- one standing, the other kneeling -- wear skimpy loincloths, like sumo wrestlers. Their nudity isn't a big issue, however, because they're covered by complex webs of intricate and spectacular tattoos, a practice common in Japan since at least the 1830s.

Like Group Kaze, whose dolls serve as educational tools about Japanese culture and history, Nishioka and Hanif view their dolls as messengers. According to Nishioka, dressing and adorning the Japanese and African dolls gives participants "a unique opportunity to explore and compare the diversity of our two cultures."

Hanif -- whose first name, Kianga, is African for "sunlight" -- believes that "education unites the world. The more we understand each other, the more we can appreciate each other." For almost a decade, since her then-five-year-old daughter asked for "a doll that looks like me," Hanif has used ethnic dolls to spread the word.

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Tomi Curtis

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