Francoise Bosteels’ dolls often depict bleak, even gruesome tales of impoverished and abused women, men, and children.
For instance, she’s made a doll of a woman beaten by her husband and of a boy digging through trash to find food. Most dolls she couples with a short story or poem. The dolls and writings are inspired by the lives of real people that Francoise has encountered in her forty years as a Belgian making South India her home.
“I find that the dolls get people to talk about situations that they are otherwise afraid to talk about,” Francoise explained in her thick Belgian accent over a mug of tea. It could be the sexual abuse of women and children, or of child labor and bonded laborer. “This is something that needs to be talked about if it will ever change.”
Much like Francoise, the dolls are both charming yet serious. They retain the sort of precious innocence of well cared for, intentionally placed figures while simultaneously conveying a very hard message. “The dolls are showing that everyday, everyday people are having rough lives.”
Francoise knows well about these rough yet beautiful lives. She moved to South Tamil Nadu in India in 1974 to work as a nurse in health education programs and on leprosy prevention and care.
She reflects on her time in India:
“There were a lot of vitamin deficiency issues in those days, especially among mothers and their new born babies. Far more than there are now. I had knowledge of western medicine but had much to learn from the people’s ancient wisdom. They knew the healing power of Mother Earth. Together with women of the village, I went to mothers and taught them to prepare tonics with roots and leaves available in the village. This got people away from expensive allopathic medicines that they couldn’t afford and helped minimize the abusive use of antibiotics.”
When did you start making the Dolls?
I actually started making dolls when I was sick with a disease that threatened my life at the age of 16, but that’s a different story. I picked up doll making again soon after coming to India in my late twenties because I was so inspired by the sights. It was the village people’s closeness to nature and the beauty of their lives that were my first inspiration. Their simple way of life fascinated me: the way little girls lead sheep to green pastures, women wear fragrant flower buds in their hair, men iron crumpled, colorful clothes or beat drums outside by the street, women carry vegetables on top of their heads using handmade palm-leaf baskets and water pots in clay jars … These images translated into the creative spirit behind the dolls.
When do you find time to make the dolls?
Now that I’m older I have a little more time to focus on making dolls, but busy or not I’ve always worked with the dolls at night. For me this is when everything is calm and peaceful. At night, the secret face of the day’s reality purifies. In still darkness the dolls take shape and come alive for me as I seek the secrets of people’s pain and of their celebrations.
You mentioned that as a young woman, you had a serious illness that left you bedridden. This led you to discover doll making. Can you tell me about this period in your life? How did the dolls help you get through?
When I was a girl it was such a joy for me to play with dolls. I loved bathing them, feeding them, dressing them up. Through play with dolls I think a child’s nature becomes revealed. It’s a time of self discovery and discovery of interacting with others. Dolls can create opportunities for us to become in touch with our deepest emotions. They teach us care giving, self-reflection and nurture that we carry into our later years.
I was sixteen when I became sick with an illness that threatened my life. It was at this time that I started creating my own dolls out of materials my mother brought me. When I felt weakest I poured life into my dolls. Each doll I made was so colorful, so alive! They became forms of expression. People saw me as disengaged, and I even heard them say “she speaks to her dolls, not to us!” But I treasured silent conversations with my dolls. They accompanied me in my loneliness and that loneliness became a surrender to the mystery that is life. Since then I’ve lived differently.
What do the dolls do for you now?
The dolls are my language. They tell the story of my integration into the Indian reality and provide expression of what life can be, not just for me but for the people they represent. Each doll represents a person. Each doll tells a story. They tell the tale of the endless column of homeless people making their way nowhere. They tell us what it means to stretch your tired body on the hard pavement as your bed. They tell us of people who have very little but remain resourceful, vital and full of compassion. Also their depictions of hard realities get people talking about things that they otherwise don’t feel comfortable talking about; like the prevalence of suicide amongst the oppressed or the lot of the beggar people.
How do these dolls encourage people to talk about difficult issues in ways that they might not otherwise?
The dolls do not have lips to speak or eyes to see with. It is their body expression, their whole condition – their positions, sitting, squatting, bending kneeling, lying, or standing. It is the clothes they wear, the environments in which they are set. – those are what tell us their story. They evoke through their body-language joy, grandeur, grief and other emotions which cannot be captured through words. For people in India or similar conditions the dolls provide a miniature representation of a world these people live in everyday. This representation of their world allows those people to view their conditions from a zoomed-out perspective. It allows them to look in from outside and reflect.
For others, perhaps in more privileged conditions, the dolls raise deep questions about the cry of the poor in a time of globalization. Following an exhibit in Fu Jen University in Taipei one teacher wrote that:
The questions of my graduate students and even their tears tell me how powerful the language of the dolls isDeep questions ariseranging from the cry of the poor to globalization, from consumerism and economic development to social responsibility, from power politics to ecological concerns, from the plight of women to social movements and solidarity in the spirit of hope, believing that a better world is possible.
What is perhaps the most memorable experience you’ve had during an exhibit?
One exhibit that was particularly memorable was in Potosi, Bolivia. I was so moved by the turnout of over five thousand people, and I felt the dolls cut across cultural barriers there. The following is what someone wrote in response to the exhibit.
The dolls bring a deeply human message to the viewer. The message is that violence, all forms of violence, must stop. The dolls bring the message to the viewer, yet the words come from within the viewer for the dolls speak no words. Looking at the dolls the viewer listens and speaks. What more evocative way is there for us to educate ourselves?
When this message is written inside us, it becomes possible to take next steps, until we all reach a moment through our actions and our words, to make real our dreams that the violence against women, the violence of all wars, and all violence, will become one day unthinkable”.
Following the exhibit in Potosi, few workshops were organized for peasant women travelling from far away villages. After looking at the dolls, the women slowly began breaking their own silence, telling their pain, narrating their stories, sharing their dreams. Through the workshop the women made dolls of their own with local material, rags and wastes, a new story of women received validity.
What are your dolls typically made out of?
Ordinary materials: a variety of colorful cloth called feutre; raphia (strong paper ribbons); pipe-cleaners; cotton balls for heads; wool; thread and discarded bobbins; banana and coconut fiber; palm leaves; bamboo; pieces of wood; small boxes and similar throw-away items. Gold and silver threads make a variety of jewelry. Sometimes I make use of small ready-made toys or art pieces such as a sewing machine or a harp. Tiny props used to create an environment have a story of their own. Thread and gum hold the figures together.
How did you come to decide to couple poems and short stories with the dolls?
The idea was suggested to me at the 1996 conference of the Ecumenical Association of Third-World–Liberation-Theologians (EATWOT) in Tagaytay, Philippines. The theme of the conference was: “Globalization and its Impact on People’s Life, Challenges to Theology”. I was invited to present the dolls to illustrate some of the issues that were bound to come up in the discussion of the theme.
Women participants suggested we publish a book with pictures of these dolls and brief write-ups to go with them. They felt that such a book would illustrate many of the points that came up in the presentations and the discussions, and hoped that the book would be EATWOT women’s contribution towards an understanding of such aspects of globalization that tend to diminish the quality of life in Third-World countries. Hence the creation of the book, “The Dolls Speak” released in year 2000 with a first exhibition open to the public. I’ve since also had the opportunity and encouragement of friends to publish “Through the Needle’s Eye; Everyday Life of Everyday People,” and “Human Icons, Sacred Stories.”
Is there anything else you would like to share about your dolls or the doll making process?
I hope that these dolls might stand the test of time. I hope that one day the issues that these dolls represent become histories and that the dolls help people recall their history of resistance to oppression and their struggle for life and dignity.
I hope now they can play a role in inviting us to join hands across cultures in dissent against further destruction of all living things and of Mother Earth herself.
I work so that the dolls might invite us to new insights and fresh commitments that remind us that it is from the depths of people’s cry for justice and freedom, for peace and life that God speaks to us.
The awakening to beauty invites us to look on all things with surprise, sustained attention and loving gaze. In beauty we discover the face of God and the brokenness of our experiences. May the doll’s images sustain our hope that “Another world is possible.”
As for me, the stories of my dolls are the stories of my encounter with the Divine in the journey of my life.
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For many years Francoise lived in a poor South Tamil Nadu Village. As nurse she worked in health education programs and in leprosy prevention and care. At present living in Bangalore, she continues to be involved in holistic health education programs for women and children of underprivileged sections of society. She uses her artistic expression in this regard.
More can be found out about Francoise and her dolls through her blog.
There you can find info about exhibitions, workshops book purchasing and/or you can shoot an email to chat with a remarkable woman.