Clonette dolls are brightly coloured plastic dolls that originated in Ghana during the 1950s in Colonial times when Ghana was still known as The Gold Coast (Ghana gained its independence in 1957). They were the first industrially produced dolls in Africa and in recent years have gained wide international appeal as a home décor item and as a muse for artists.
Discovering Clonette dolls through her modern day ‘sisters’
I learnt about the Ghanaian Clonette Doll indirectly through her more contemporary South African sisters and brothers. Dutch Artist Manoushka Kraal has lived in my home city of Durban, South Africa for several years and she spends her days dreaming up beautiful girl and boy figurines who are like the Clonette in that they are holding a pet animal, and sometimes wearing pinafores and Mary Jane shoes and socks, but whose faces and hairstyles more strongly resemble those of the young African girls and boys who have always played with Clonette as a toy. She has essentially ‘African-ised’ her dolls, and given her little people beautiful South African names like Thando and Zodwa. Her figures are originally carved by talented South African men and women in Jacaranda wood, and then replicated in resin and painted by herself.
Having only lived in Ghana for a few months at the time, I had to return to have a surgery and a dear friend gifted me Zodwa the mermaid. Zodwa has a beautiful African fro and one imagines that her serene, pensive expression emanates from spending her days blissfully swimming in the ocean, all the while holding her ‘Clonette-like’ golden bunny of course. Now on my wall in a collection of Bolgatanga fans, a beautiful embroidered gift from my artist friend Gill Douglas that reads ‘Bloom where you are planted’ , and a piece of art on loan from another friend she is perfectly at home in a wall symbolic of wonderful ‘female friendship’.
After recovering from what was a pretty harrowing time in our lives, I visited Manoushka’s studio at her home to choose another doll to commemorate a tough few weeks, and it was there that she showed me the original plastic Clonette Doll that her ‘dollies’ were inspired by.
“These plastic dolls come from Ghana” she remarked and I was delighted to learn of this lovely coincidence between her original inspiration and the place we were now calling home. Koala Kate with her gorgeous textured hair in two side buns and her Dorothy like red Mary Janes and similar content smile to the plastic Clonettes, seemed to silently tell me that she wished to live in Ghana and a few days later she was packed in my suitcase for our journey back to our new home in West Africa to explore her ‘roots’!
The Clonette Doll’s first appearance in Ghana
In an English translation of an excerpt of her French book ‘Çeci n’est pas un jouet’ which means ‘This is not a toy’, author Catherine McKinley writes of the time the Clonette doll arrived in Ghana in 1955; “a bright optimistic stranger appeared in the city. Primary school aged, wearing a crisp bright-coloured pinafore and clutching a rabbit, her large round eyes and impish smile were framed by permed and neatly coiffed hair; as impervious to the heat as her ankle socks, worn with shiny bright Mary Janes, were to the dusty red laterite city streets”. (McKInley)
I own a few of these quaint looking plastic Clonette Dolls who stand on our colourful bookshelves in our home in Accra, Ghana, watching our family’s daily lives go by. Cradling their pet rabbits in one hand, they stand tall and proud and stare straight ahead, reminding me of the unwavering facial expressions of members of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, although there is warmth in their gentle smiles! Sometimes my children enjoy sneaking them off the shelves and squeezing their bellies to produce a loud squeaking sound that I wouldn’t wish to hear on repeat! They stand next to some of my wood carved Ghanaian figures. Sculpture, carving and figure making as an art form has existed in Africa for centuries and it is evident that although Clonette represents a little white girl, the way she was originally designed as a figure is very ‘African’.
Forever frozen in time, Clonette is ageless
This young plastic ‘stranger’ who appeared in Ghana 66 years ago is unlike the dolls that some of us played with as children. Many of our young arms held babies or Barbies that had moveable arms and legs, and sometimes even necks that could turn, blinking eyes and eyelashes that felt real to the touch! Clonette’s body is immobile, her oval eyes don’t have pupils. She is not only physically frozen but also appears frozen in time with her old fashioned dress and demure hair style. Looking at her brings up a sense of nostalgia that I experienced recently when admiring many toys from decades ago at the Stellenbosch Toy Museum in the Cape, and also a fascination that this doll is essentially an African doll who was born on the continent yet she doesn’t appear typically African.
Aunty Dei Dei – her Ghanaian name
In Ghana Clonette dolls are commonly known as ‘Auntie Dei Dei’ (spelt just like this). ‘Dei Dei’ refers to her first born status in the Ga tradition, but she is also called Auntie – a respectful name for older women here. Her name is lightly pressed into the plastic just above her smock’s waist. It is so faintly done during her manufacturing process that you have to really inspect her closely to see the imprint, and I’d never noticed before this week, that she is labeled with her Ghanaian name. The smaller sized dolls are called ‘Baby Dei Dei’.
In our current political and social climate there is a tremendous amount of probing and questioning going on when it comes to race and gender. Just last week we met an American couple and had an interesting discussion regarding the hot topic of the day – whether the iconic toy Mr Potatoe head should have the honorific ‘Mr’ removed from his name as some had suggested.
So my initial hunch when I was inspired to write about Clonette Dolls last week, was that I was certain there would be conversation around the fact that she is so very Caucasian in appearance, yet has a quintessentially Ghanaian name and was produced in Ghana for an African market. After all, Aunty Dei Dei doesn’t look like the African children who were holding her or having fun filling her with water and spraying it from the small opening on her head, and is far more like the children of the British Colonials who ruled Ghana at the time.
The Clonette doll is ‘African’ with a complex identity
My feelings were correct and Catherine McKinley eloquently discusses the topic of her white appearance versus the African hands playing with her, and explains that although she appears to be Caucasian, she is still very much ‘African’, having been born on the continent and representing the ‘playfulness and desires’ of African girls and women of her colonial/post colonial era with her hair for example, which is a style that many women of that time would want to emulate with a wig or a perm.
However we can’t deny the lack of ‘African-ness’ in the way she looks and some argue that she is a ‘colo’ – a relic of the culture of colonialism, and that her white appearance “reveals something of colonialism’s far reach and its disquieting power”. (McKinley)
Her identity is therefore multifaceted; “She is a girl who at once embodies modernity, prosperity, cosmopolitanism….At the same time, she is an emblem of colonialism and the disquieting history and violence to African women’s bodies and self-image.” (McKinley)
I also appreciate what Adeline Cuvelier says on her beautiful blog Ada, Zadie & Co, that many of us happily played with Barbies as children and with her tiny waist, large bust and thick blonde hair she certainly does not and will never look like most of us! These days it is really refreshing and wonderful to see just how many African dolls are available so that many more children have the option of playing with a baby that resembles them.
Who is the Clonette doll to Ghanaians?
McKinley has done research into how the Clonette Doll was remembered by those who played with her in the 50s and 60s and later decades and many recall her as a cheerful novelty toy in bright colours that often appeared in shops and markets at Christmas time. “Mostly she is remembered in sentimental or expendable terms: she was a “cheap” but charming knockoff of Western aesthetics and English archetypes” writes McKinley. “…something with a short decorative life; or as a funny object that squeaked and could be fllled and used as a water gun until it eventually became kicked about and then discarded.” (McKinley)
Sefa Daenzer, grew up in the 50s in Accra and told me how her and her siblings were gifted Clonette dolls at the annual Christmas party they used to attend at the Ghana club, where their parents were members. As a child she hated these “stiff, lifeless, monochrome” dolls and tells me they felt cheated and decided that they would boycott future Christmas parties if this is the best Santa could do! But after reading this post about Clonettes she humorously concedes “You’ve succeeded in making me now look at Auntie Dei Dei with respect and appreciation. She’s reached cult status and is now a collector’s item! I forgive her! :-)”
Harry Khubchandani, owner of the amazing Tandoor Indian Restaurant in Ghana, relays his connection to the Clonette dolls, and tells of how his father was the first to manufacture them here in Ghana. “He used 1955 Chinese manual blow moulding machines, and he used 50 percent plastic waste.” Original Clonettes included a whistle that was later found to be hazardous and removed from the design. Harry tells the humorous story of the questions the whistle raised; “The whistle, which was imported from Japan, was first placed under the skirt, and then it was changed to be at the top of the head, because kids always wanted to know what was under the skirt!”
He also mentions how for a while he was involved in the production of a larger Clonette; “Apart from these 2 sizes there was a larger one which I started producing during the late seventies (that didn’t catch on because it was too big).”
There were also beliefs and rituals associated with Clonette dolls regarding fertility, the loss of a child or a twin or the yearning for a baby. In Ghana there is the belief that infertility is both a physical and spiritual condition, and it is common for the Akan people to carry Akuaba dolls which are wooden fertility dolls that are carried on the backs of women hoping to conceive a child, with the confidence that this will increase their chances of having a baby and if they are pregnant, that their child will be born with the attractive features of the doll. When not being actively used, these wooden dolls are routinely washed and cared for in the homestead.
I also found is fascinating to read in McKinley’s book that often times Ghanaian’s use the term ‘Me broni ba’ meaning ‘My white baby’ affectionately; “ Me broni ba, I love you!” shouted after a well-dressed woman. “Oh, don’t cry,me broni ba!” said to a favored child.“ Me broni ba!” a compliment passed to a woman with freshly coiffed AfroEuro-styled hair. (McKinley)
Originally made in Ghana and still manufactured here
Clonettes were originally manufactured in Ghana at the plastic factory Kane Em which is in the North Industrial Area, and were also sent to be sold in Ghana’s neighbouring countries. Quite refreshingly, they are not made in China as one might expect, and I love that they are still manufactured in the country they were born. Kane Em still produces them in 3 different sizes and they also sell a plastic soccer player to appeal to the boys. I bought the ones on our bookshelves from the lovely gift store Sun Trade Beads in Accra and I’ve also seen plastic Clonettes at The Shop Accra. I haven’t seen them at Makola Market but I’m sure given the fact that almost anything can be found at this sprawling market place that there are Clonettes for sale too! (If you haven’t taken my virtual blog post tour of Makola please do have a read!).
The Owner of Kane Em plastic factory Mr Wadhwani came to Accra in 1955 when Clonettes were first being produced as Christmas gifts for the women who purchased plastic items in bulk to sell at the markets, and later as toys for children. The original Clonette figures were refined by Kane Em and at the time they held a competition for their customers seeing who could best fashion a new Auntie Dei Dei.
Auntie Dei Dei is a girl with a passport
McKinley concludes that “What Aunty Dei Dei is, unequivocally, is a girl with a passport. Few of her lovers internationally know her history. Fewer know that as much as she might not appear so, SHE IS AN AFRICAN GIRL. SHE IS NOT A PLAY THING.” (McKinley)
And girl with a passport she in indeed when you come across the site Ada, Zadie & Co and marvel at the extensive travels Clonette dolls Ada (the red one) and Zadie (the yellow one) have done since 2008. This beautiful blog kept me entranced for an afternoon last week when my Covid induced wanderlust was satisfied by seeing all the incredible photos of places that Ada and Zadie have travelled to. 36 countries and 10 states in America to be precise!
Travelling Clonette dolls Ada, Zadie & Co
Adeline Cuvelier started this collective project of the travelling Clonette dolls in 2008 when she found Ada at a little shop in France and having been inspired by a Lonely Planet book about experiential travel she asked ten friends to help kick start it. The blog blossomed as strangers worldwide started hosting Ada, and later Zadie in their home countries, and taking beautiful photos of them exploring! Adeline happily explains “We’re a bunch of strangers connecting creative people and making it possible for a plastic doll to travel around the world.” In the project’s manifesto she states that they believe in saving the world, one smile at a time, and finding this blog really made me smile, especially when I realised that Ada had holidayed in my home city of Durban to spend some time with the Dutch doll maker I mentioned earlier, Manoushka Kraal and her family!
I couldn’t help but notice that despite the widespread travels these dolls had embarked on, that they hadn’t visited their true ‘birth’ place of Ghana! So I decided to take Ada’s twin, my red Clonette doll on a little neighbourhood walk and show her life beyond her bookshelf home.
To read more about our neighbourhood in Accra see my blog post An Ode to my Road. While taking the photos I asked the ladies selling the coconuts, cooldrinks, fruit and grilled plantain, and the man selling the fried ‘bofrot’ if they knew of the Clonette dolls, They were all familiar with them, commenting that their children play with these dolls. When I asked what they call her none mentioned ‘Auntie Dei Dei’, but one lady said she knew her as ‘Jobi’ and another said that her daughter has named her Clonette with her own name. Our security guard said that he has bought these dolls for his twins but they have lost them which reminded me of the expendable sentiment towards Clonette which McKinley describes in her book.
Artist Larry Bonchaka’s Clonette doll series
Another place where I’ve seen an impressive gathering of Clonettes en masse was when we visited Accra’s National Theatre in Ghana for a concert. Something about the inside of this theatre with its unusual lights and colours reminded me of a set up for Ripley’s Believe it or Not Show.
On the top floor the art exhibition ‘Truth or Dare’ was on display and Ghanaian artist Larry Bonchaka had created armies of Clonette Dolls with an installation of hundreds of these plastic figurines whose dresses and pets had been bedazzled, but whose faces had been burnt and mutilated. He explains on his Instagram that his Clonette dolls series explores themes beauty, survival, anxiety, disaster, nostalgia and love. Read more about his art here where I also learnt that he travelled to Stellenbosch, South Africa a year ago with fellow artists who form the group Asafo Black to exhibit their work.
The Clonette Doll is one of those items of Ghanaian culture that you may not think of as belonging here at first glance, and I hope that you have enjoyed learning more her.
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