We have many long traditions of creating human figurines in this country. Various kinds of doll-like figures – sometimes called “child-figures” – exist in different parts of South Africa.
In fact, they are neither dolls (in the sense of being toys to play with), nor do they always represent children; more often they represent adult figures. At times they are referred to as “fertility figures”, or even sometimes as “marriage dolls”. As you will see when you read about specific examples, they may have a number of important meanings and uses, which differ from community to community. But for simplicity, we will call them “doll-figures” here.
The very earliest ones were made of clay, and are well over a thousand years old. Many dozens of such clay fertility figurines were found at Schroda, an archaeological site near the meeting-point of the Limpopo and the Shashe rivers.
In the next few pages we will look at a few of the traditional doll-figures of South Africa, and their stories. They vary greatly from place to place. They are usually very simplified in form: their shapes are more symbolic than realistic. They may be constructed from natural materials (like grass and wood), or from found materials. The inner core (or body) might consist of grass, clay, wood, a gourd or calabash, bottle, or a tin can. If it is hollow, it might be filled with sand, seeds or powder – which could have either a functional purpose (to make it stand better, for example), or a symbolic one (as muti, or to give it power). This core or body is then clothed in different ways, depending on the tradition it comes from. Some are wrapped in cloth, some have beads strung round them, grass rings, metal pieces, leather, or found objects – which may include pieces of plastic toys, for example. Each evokes, even if in very abstract ways, how human beings adorn themselves.