MONROVIA, Liberia — Cora Taylor holds up a brown Barbie doll outfitted in one of her creations: a long dress and headdress in brightly printed African fabric.
“I wanted something else, something that looked like me,” said Taylor, whose full name is Cora Ann Elizabeth Evto Taylor Ferguson, though most of her friends just call her Miss Coco.
It’s hard for any doll to compare to Taylor, though. With hairdos that change more often than the weather, from a big afro to a slicked back ponytail that reveals a subtle streak of gray, arched eyebrows and a beauty mark on the top of her right cheek, she looks elegant even in a short-shorts green terrycloth jumpsuit and daisy-adorned flip flops.
Taylor, a Liberian who lived in the United States for most of the 20 years of intermittent civil war that shook this small West African nation, moved back to Monrovia in 2004.
During the war, nearly 1 million people fled, 1 million were displaced and more than 250,000 died. In a country of only 3 million, it’s safe to say that everyone suffered.
The war devastated Liberia. Now, six years into the rebuilding process, things are getting better but the process is tedious. During the war, the municipal water and power grids were completely destroyed, as was all basic health, education and other infrastructure.
Everyone who could leave did leave. Taylor left.
“When I first came back, I cried,” said Taylor, crying a bit once again. During the war, she lost her brother and a score of other relatives. Just outside her living room window is a pile or rubble that used to be her aunt’s home.
“I missed everyday life,” Taylor said, of her time in America. “Here, there are different kinds of stress today. But even if I don’t have a cup of water, all is still well with my soul.”
Though Taylor works a full-time job at a government office in town, she uses the living room of her modest but stylishly decorated home as a studio. With an abundance of energy and creative flair, Taylor began creating Liberian fashions for Barbie dolls.
"I'm not color struck, but most stores just have white dolls and I wanted something else," explained Taylor, who describes how when she visits the U.S. she goes from store to store looking for the black versions of Barbie dolls, and at one point had dolls with three different shades of brown skin. She can't find those anymore.
"These are not Barbies. These are $1 plastic dolls from Japan." She buys them at discount chain stores in Texas, Georgia, Maryland and anywhere else she can find them. They look like Barbies, with trim figures and startling bright blue eyes. They aren't ordinary Barbies, though. They have brown skin.
Spread out over two small black wicker coffee tables is the studio where Taylor makes traditional African clothes for the Barbies out of lapa fabric.
Lapa is a brightly colored and patterned cloth commonly sold in markets and by tailors everywhere in West Africa. Across the continent in East Africa, similar cloth is called kitenge. These days much of the fabric is manufactured in China, although it is still called “African.” Taylor makes miniature outfits out of the cloth to dress the dolls. She's bothered that the dolls aren't more "authentic" (her words) but she sews away anyway.
Like many Liberians, Taylor represents a culture spanning two very different continents. She considers herself as much American as she does Liberian. She makes sense — and art — out of it all. The dolls are a lively cross of the two continents. She sells her dolls for $50 to her Texas friends and $25 to mainly NGO types in Monrovia.
Since Taylor first dressed up a Barbie look-alike in lapa in 1992, she estimates she has sold at least a thousand dolls. She used to stock gift shops and boutiques across the U.S. with her mini-masterpieces, but now she is selling from her Monrovia living room and the occasional opportunity out and about town. She is planning to launch a website to sell the dolls.
Most recently, in March of this year, Liberia hosted an International Women’s Colloquium that drew dignitaries like the president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s daughter and others, as well as nearly 1,000 delegates. Taylor sold her dolls at one of the exhibition booths just outside the venue. She sold about 60 of them, though is most proud of her sale to “Madame Ellen,” Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa.
“Ellen bought two, dressed in colloquium lapa,” Taylor said, referring to fabric printed for the occasion with the Liberian and Finish flag on a purple background. “And I gave her a third one for free!”
No two dolls are ever alike, which is partially a result of Taylor's creative process. She never formally studied art, and to this day says most of her fashion sense comes from her mother, who is “the most beautiful woman I know.”
When she was young, her parents would travel and bring her back paper dolls and plastic dolls. “But the clothes were never enough!” Not surprising coming from Taylor, whose current closet includes several dozen pairs of shoes, a score of hats and more outfits than can be counted. “I grew up in a family of glamour girls,” she added.
When she was young, she started making more clothes for her dolls from scraps of fabric and bright paper.
Today, she still uses scraps of fabric. Sometimes she sews the fabric, and sometimes she uses a hot glue gun and scissors to shape the dress. But regardless of how the outfit comes to life, the process always starts with the hot glue gun. She glues cotton balls to the dolls' chests and butts to give them more “African” figures. Then she cuts all the hair off so that she can cover their heads in lapa wraps. The outfits are always unique mini-versions of the styles well dressed ladies wear out and about town.
But to Taylor, being an African woman is more than just glamour. “When I think about the African women I know, I feel strength. They are all real women with direction, looking towards the future.”
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