There’s gold paint smeared across the walls for David Ford’s latest exhibit at the UMKC Gallery of Art.
Around the room, heads are placed delicately on shelves and pedestals. On some heads, the complexions are marred by scars and stains. They stare but at no one and nothing in particular. Some of their eyes are made milky white and scratched by years of time in the elements. Scrawled on the wall in black paint are rows and rows of expense algorithms alongside sheets of financial records and graphs. This is “The Muñeca Project,” a body of work years in the making coming from Ford’s travels. The name is in reference to the doll traditionally given to young girls on their 15th birthday, or quinceañera in some Latin cultures.
Ford is an artist of many disciplines including sculpting, photography and painting – all of which come together in “The Muñeca Project.” The main focus of the exhibit is an assortment of heads. Distressed and aged, the heads are pseudo life-sized Barbie doll heads. The once sparkling eyes are dull, the lips are faded to an almost deadened state of color and the skin is flecked with scratches and marks of all kinds. The hair is dreaded and decorated with colorful ties and knots. Originally, these particular heads were modified to advertise the ways vendors style the hair of visiting tourists.
While in Guatemala, Ford encountered the dolls and enquired on how much it would cost to buy them. “The [Maya people of Guatemala] wanted to braid a tourist’s hair,” Ford said. “I didn’t need my hair braided, I got white hair, but I said ‘I like your doll I want to buy it.’ So I ended up buying it for three bucks and we laughed and me and the Maya are joking around and I came back later and they had gotten another one and braided it up. I said ‘That’s cool man how much is that?’ Just joking around and he said ‘five dollars.’”
It’s this immediate and exponential raise in price for these once relatively worthless doll heads that inspired Ford to return later. “So over six years I kept going back to this village and buying every doll head that I could afford and screwing the market to the point where now there’s a shop that just sells these weird doll heads.”
The doll heads themselves are in a sort of cultural limbo. Visitors viewing them may find them off putting or even disturbing, but this reaction is linked to where they stand as works of art. They were created outside of the Guatemalan culture, serving largely only to advertise a service to tourists. I American Barbie doll heads are morphed into something contrary to the plastic dream of rich, beautiful housewives with hot pink sports cars. The style and design of the heads are not dominated by either culture, which makes them odd to observe.
Even walking in without any understanding of the story behind the doll heads, opinions are formed. One UMKC student remarked “I love it because I used to have a bunch of Barbie heads and Bratz doll heads so seeing them portrayed with a bunch of hair wraps and looking dirty and their heads are twisted and parts are broken off – It’s really interesting.”
The Muñeca Project with be open for viewing at the UMKC gallery of art throughout the remainder of the month.