Dolls of Hope
Professor Cynthia Davis uses dolls to break the silence surrounding HIV and AIDS
by Alina Oswald

Gallery dolls lead 2Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ometimes a doll can be a little girl’s best friend. It can be her most trusted friend, companion, and help her make dreams for her future adult life. As it turns out, dolls are not only for young girls, but also pretty much for anybody in need of having something to hold, and maybe to hold on to.

Professor Cynthia Davis is an Assistant Professor and Program Director in the College of Medicine and College of Science and Health at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, in Los Angeles, California. She holds a master’s degree in public health, and received an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters. Professor Davis has also served on the Board of Directors of AIDS Healthcare Foundation for twenty-seven years.

G02A9237When she was a child, her mother could not afford to buy her dolls. And so, when she had a daughter of her own, she made sure her daughter had dolls to play with. Over time, she realized that she wasn’t buying dolls only for her daughter, but also for herself. She started collecting dolls some thirty-one years ago, and now has almost 2,000 dolls in her private collection.

Professor Davis doesn’t only collect, but also makes dolls. She has also been an HIV and AIDS activist almost from the beginning of the pandemic.

“I was recruited in 1984 to start a state-funded teen pregnancy prevention project for Charles R. Drew University,” she explains over the phone. “And it was right about the time when there was a lot of hysteria about HIV. So, I was forced to learn about HIV, since it was sexually transmitted, so that I could incorporate it into the education [courses] that I was [teaching]. The schools where I was implementing HIV and family life education [sex education] classes were middle and high schools in South Los Angeles. And I got linked-up with a very well known advocate, and I actually brought him into the classroom, because I was teaching about HIV and STDs, so the kids could put a face to it. The rest is history.”

The well-known AIDS advocate she brought into her classroom is no other than Phill Wilson [A&U, February 2014] of the Black AIDS Institute. “Phill Wilson had founded the Black AIDS Institute back in 1984 and 1985,” she adds. “He was a community activist and advocate living with HIV.” She recalls Wilson telling students that HIV could happen to them, too, and that they needed to be educated and informed about the virus, in order to protect themselves from getting infected.

And that was how it all started. She got fully engaged in doing HIV-related work, primarily in the at-risk, medically underserved population.

Soon, her love for dolls came in handy. In 1998 she started the Dolls of Hope Project as a World AIDS Day activity. The theme was “Youth Being a Force for Change.” She came up with the idea for her doll project during her frequent travels around the world. She would notice the impact of HIV and AIDS on children, women, youth, and also entire communities. While visiting AIDS orphanages she became aware that many children did not have any toys to play with. So, why not make dolls to give them, to help comfort them?

G02A9155She received a small grant from a pharmaceutical company, and contacted a master dollmaker she’d met at a community marketplace. They ended up meeting with volunteers on a weekly basis, making dolls for up to nine months. “The original dolls were called ‘Sista Dolls’ and they had wings sewn on them,” Professor Davis explains, “as well as a message of hope written on a piece of paper by someone who made the doll, and which was attached to each doll.”

She then wrote and sent out about 100 letters to agencies, to let them know about the project, and that she wanted to mail these dolls to children or youth living with HIV. Some thirty agencies responded. And that’s how the Dolls of Hope Project began. There was a dedication ceremony on World AIDS Day 1998. A couple hundred people attended the event.

“Well,” Professor Davis adds, “the volunteers who were making the dolls got so caught up in the program that they didn’t want to stop the project. And so the project now has been operational for about seventeen to eighteen years.” It is funded by private donations, and, through this project, some 6,000 handmade cloth dolls have been distributed to AIDS orphans, women, and youth from around the world, all affected by the virus.

Dolls, in the context of HIV and AIDS, do help break the silence surrounding the pandemic, and also the associated stigma. Also, in itself, the dollmaking process can also be therapeutic.

When she first started teaching dollmaking workshops, helping people learn how to hand-make dolls, Professor Davis would begin the workshop with a brief HIV 101 presentation. Some of those attending the workshops—mostly women, but also men—were living with HIV. Others were not. During the course of the workshops, they all got to bond, to connect. And so, oftentimes, women who had the virus would come out about their status. And they were accepted, because the bond was already there. That was early on in the project. Today, Professor Davis rarely conducts an HIV 101 presentation before the classes, and she does so only if such presentation is requested by the agency sponsoring the workshop.

G02A9198Each doll is unique, and it takes about forty-five minutes to an hour to make one. The doll is stuffed with a very soft fiber similar to cotton. The hair is made out of yarn of different colors. “My daughter used to paint the faces on each doll for me,” Professor Davis says. “But when she moved away to attend college, I had to learn to paint on the faces. Now, I am pretty good at it.” Dolls usually wear very bright, colorful outfits, and also shoes. Dollmakers can get quite creative in adding earrings and other jewelry, and so on.

When visiting Zimbabwe, Professor Davis noticed that the country had a large number of AIDS orphans. The government would set them up to reside on farms. Having no other toys to play with, children would play with rocks, in the dirt. So she decided to give them dolls, so that they could have something they could call their own.

When the earthquake hit Haiti, Professor Davis sent out up to 100 dolls to children, so they could have something of their own, something to hold. It turned out that women who’d lost their children in the earthquake wanted those dolls, too, for the same reasons. “The organizer of the trip to Haiti told me the story,” Professor Davis reemphasizes, “about women grabbing dolls from some of the children in Haiti who were to receive the dolls so that they could have a doll to hold on to. It was a very sad situation.”

Recently, Professor Davis was asked to curate the 35th Annual Black Doll show in California. (The Annual Black Doll Show is a tradition that started in the forties, inspired by the Black Doll Test, which showed that African-American children would choose to play with white dolls over black dolls.) And so, Professor Davis decided to use dolls, and use trench art as a theme for the exhibit. During World War I, soldiers would be forced to stay in trenches for long periods of time. And they would use shrapnel and metal to make pieces of art. After the war, some of that art became collectible items. Recently, Professor Davis found out that the term “trench art” is used to describe “any decorative item made from the debris and/or by-products of modern warfare.” Hence, she called the show “Trench Art Retrospective: The War Against HIV/AIDS–Women of the African Diaspora in the Trenches” because a more recent war we’re fighting is that against HIV and AIDS.

The show opened at William Grant Stills Arts Center in Los Angeles, California, and ran from December 12, 2015 to February 13, 2016. Several hundred community residents came to the exhibit as well as to the HIV/AIDS educational programs incorporated into the exhibit. “The Trench Art Retrospective” show “represents the curator’s involvement with local and internationally renowned artists over the past thirty-five years, highlighting the battle she and the community at large have been engaged in to elevate awareness about HIV/AIDS, to enhance primary prevention interventions targeting at-risk populations as well as the general public, and the ongoing battle to ensure that adequate resources are being made available to under-resourced and low-income communities to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and more importantly, to ensure that people living with HIV have complete access to lifesaving antiretroviral drugs.”

Gallery dolls leadProfessor Davis invited visual and installation artists to feature their artwork in the show, which, in turn, ended up including a very diverse and mixed collection of art. Among the artists whose work was featured in the show were Ofelia Esparza, an installation artist best known for her thirty-plus years of Dia de los Muertos altar installations; Bernard Stanley Hoyes, a Jamaica-native visual artist who came to the States at the age of fifteen; and also Allyson Allen, award-winning master African-American quilt and doll artist.

Professor Davis plans on taking the show on the road, across the country. “I plan to be in Oakland, California, in late May or early June working with a non-profit called W.O.R.L.D. which serves women living with HIV/AIDS,” she says. “Myself and two other artists will conduct a three-day workshop where the women will make dolls as well as make altars which will be placed on display at one or more venues in Oakland to heighten awareness about HIV/AIDS’ impact on women from the African Diaspora.” The show will then travel to Jackson, Mississippi, Florida, New York and Washington, D.C., with the project collaborating with local AIDS service organizations.

“One person can make a difference,” Professor Davis says, speaking about the role the show offers, and that is to break the silence around HIV and AIDS, but also speaking about the overall fight to end the pandemic. “Even though I haven’t done this on my own,” she adds, “it’s so important in the fourth decade of the HIV pandemic that we still come together to eliminate the stigma and homophobia. HIV is no longer a death sentence, but in my work in the community, there are still people who do not know their HIV status. There’s still a lot of fear. There’s a significant amount of stigma that’s still associated with the disease. You need a basic understanding about [this virus]. If you’re sexually active, [you need] to [get] tested on a regular basis. You need to know your status.” She adds, “I’m using art to eliminate some of these barriers and to bring the community together, so that we can have a dialogue, to support people and their families living with HIV and [do] what we need to do to prevent ourselves from [contracting and transmitting] a preventable disease.…I mean, HIV is 100-percent preventable.”


To learn more about the amazing work of Professor Cynthia Davis, please visit To learn more about Dolls of Hope Project, go to To find out more about the 35th Annual Doll Show, check out Tom Nguyen’s blog:


Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.