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Exhibition Essay
June 14, 2024

The Magic Touch: Material Metamorphoses of Kimberly Camp and Emilo Maldonado

About the Author
Danelle Bernten

Ms. Danelle Bernten (she/her) is an Art Historian and PhD student residing in Tallahassee, Florida.

See the exhibition here


In Dolls, Idols, and Ideals, Kimberly Camp and Emilio Maldonado materialize both the doll and idol in two distinct ways during this spectral exhibition from February 29, 2024 to April 20, 2024 at InLiquid Gallery, Philadelphia. Camp positions her anthropomorphic creatures in the here and the ethereal. At first, her dolls are demonstrative in spirit, but become marionettes with invisible strings pulled, jerked, and transformed from Yoruban (Original West African regions of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin) spirituality into New World wonders. In Maldonado’s assemblage of found, junk, and art materials, he molds his Black body into a supra-human figure. His body takes on magical strength and stamina while embracing its vulnerable human origins with the layering of plastics, cardboard, and human detritus. As a result, his placement of trash objects as dress makes him a breathing idol who eschews negative portrayals and connotations of Blackness by voluntarily wearing trash. In his compositions of found materials and rubbish for clothing, he confronts the viewers’ perceptions of immigrant identity, neighborhoods, and architecture. Both artists address African-American and Afro-Caribbean spiritual heritage and constructions of Blackness in the New World by addressing its vulnerabilities and resilience. In both, movement of the seen and unseen are captured. The artist has converted the body and/or crafted doll into an earthly figure of black reclaimed identity with supernatural congruence. 

Kimberly Camp, The Conjurer, 2024, Stoneware, glass beads, tobacco, chicken bones, glass beads, cotton printed with a Gee’s Bend quilt pattern from design of Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960), 31”

In Camp’s dolls, the heads represent various animals such as the toad, raccoon, weasel, bear, possum, and rabbit. Yet, she reconstructs them into human figures in their roles and responsibilities concerning Camp’s vision of Black history, spirituality, and excellence. One wants to separate the fully human from the fantastical creatures, but we cannot. Camp has blurred the realms of spirit and materiality by forging dolls which display the ties of syncretic religious practices in the New World and the lives of her ancestors. These ancestors were the African-Americans in her family’s history in South Carolina and those who migrated to the North to Pennsylvania and found discrimination existed everywhere. InLiquid’s Curator Clare Finin has placed each standing doll on a wooden crate inviting us to spend some time with each-but knowing- they must travel again to their next destination, metaphysically and otherwise. 

Camp also creates specifically human characters like the Conjurer and John Henry. In the Conjurer, Camp demonstrates her doll making skills with aplomb. 

Camp has been making dolls since 1982 and it shows. The Conjurer’s stoneware head, delicate features, rich color, and grace put us under Camp’s crafty spells of beauty.  Texture alone makes us want to touch and squeeze the Gee’s Bend quilt patterns reduced, resized, and printed on cotton, the tobacco leaves in her pocket, and beaded elekes (necklaces). Camp fashions her dolls’ bodies with fabric over wood and iron armatures.

Kimberly Camp, Honey Chile, 2024, stoneware, raccoon recycled fur, cotton, wooden beads, 28”

This foundation provides us a glimpse into Camp’s creative process but also speaks to how Black racial identity and class were constructed, regulated, and metamorphosized in North America and the British Caribbean by visible and invisible structures. The Conjurer’s spirit and West African practices have traveled from the shores of Africa and are transformed into a new Black being; a being who will stand in confidence, similar to the figures in the photographed works of Emilio Maldonado. As a result, Camp’s Conjurer’s attire and practices can be dated to 1619 and 1865 while in colonial dress, but her essence is eternal. Additionally, Camp’s use of Gee’s Bend quilt designs in the Conjurer and Honey Chile (Racoon) figures reminds us of the craft and patterns utilized by Black female Southern artists through today. We seek her healing touch and answers from beyond the grave from our ancestors. Her colorful elekes (necklaces) beckon the appropriate Orisha for wisdom and protection.1 We know the Conjurer can heal and sicken, making us wonder how she feels about our quotidian activities. Are we worthy of protection or deserve retribution?  What about the other doll figures who surround her in the exhibition? Have these spirits and humans behaved appropriately-as all the dolls face each other in seemingly silent conversation. Her eyes are watching gods not humans. Her head tilts upwards to receive direct answers from Black deities. 

In Honey Chile (Racoon), Camp surrounds her high-heeled raccoon’s dress with racist imagery and references to Little Black Sambo, challenging us to engage with racist nomenclature of the Black body as the same animal and the ways Children’s literature and Hollywood cinema supported racist tropes.2  

Kimberly Camp, Prince, 2024, stoneware, velvet, satin, official Prince Hall Mason emblem patch, 28”

In her anthropomorphic works, Prince (Toad) is fabricated and dressed in elegant green velvet, satin, acrylic paint, glass beads, stoneware, and gold colored embroidery.  His webbed feet and serpentine hands remind us of his reptilian identity but his countenance is one of a dignified man. Inspired by the actions of the fifteen men who founded the Prince Hall Freemasonry Hall in 1784, this standing toad chips away at notions of Black inferiority. His clothing hides the potentially dangerous skin of the toad from his enemies.  His closed mouth belies the quick and poisonous nature of his tongue towards his prey. His eyes tell us a story of resourcefulness for Camp does not allow them to blink or sleep. Toads normally rest during the day and hunt for their insects at night. Here, Prince’s hunt for distinction remains perennial for his lodge. Unlike frogs, toads’ spawn resemble long black thin beads, not clumps.3

Similarly, the long, embroidered lines and fringes of the Prince’s vest point to a continued history of African-American perseverance and eminence even in the face of rejection and exclusion. Unlike the more defined and structured fashioning of the Prince, the Messenger’s (Possum’s)) clothing is loose fitting and appears as a simplified tunic or African-inspired dashiki.4 His black beaded eyes stare forward and half-cocked one-toothed smile tell us that we cannot fairly fight a mammal who can play dead. His elekes (necklaces) and veve (spiritual directional diagram) also provide the Orishas direction. 

Kimberly Camp, Messenger, 2024, stoneware, acrylic paint, velvet, faux fur, bison tooth, wooden beads, leather, 31”

At times, he seeks to move between the realms of life and death, perhaps finding more life among the African ancestors than the neglectful living. He stands with the living and the dead in true adaptability and flexibility-open to supernatural discussion in an art gallery.  When we view him in the gallery, the pink shades that line his lips and mouth provide some semblance of naturalism.  But we are at a crossroads. The more we look at the figure, the more that we are reminded that his veve i(spiritual directional diagram) invites Papa Legba to permit communication between the living and the dead at his ordained time. These works allow us to question our ways of life as symbols of death to the ancestors and whether our ancestors are lost to us in a post-modern world of spiritual indifference.

In John Henry, Camp forges a Black male figure of literal and metaphorical suffering and redemption. 

After admiring the handsomeness, jet black hair, and fashionable clothing of the doll, we focus on her aesthetic contemplation of the life and legend of John Henry, an African-American Virginia State Penitentiary convict turned legendary hero. Two competing stories continue to haunt the life and death of John Henry. The popular story represented in folk, country, and blues ballads is one that pits John Henry’s nine-pound hammer against the steam drill in a competition. Journalist William Grimes reminds us that this competition allegedly taxed Henry’s body to death immediately afterwards.5 Henry was hired for prison convict labor by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Railway Company in order to drill holes in sandstone for tunnel blasting and railway construction in West Virginia. Historian Dr. Scott Reynolds Nelson has written a detailed book on the actual John Henry and debunks several myths regarding his origins, life, and death. Dr. Nelson’s research analyzes a second and more plausible theory of Henry’s and other steel drivers’ deaths. He posits that Henry may have died from silica poisoning, toxic particles emitted from the hammering of sandstone into the air and lungs of these laborers.6 Legend wants us to view a competition between man and technology.

Kimberly Camp, John Henry, 2024, stoneware. cotton and silk designed fabric with his signature from his contract, acrylic chain, 53”

However, Nelson’s study of the suspicious Reconstruction era behavior of Virginian government officials arresting and incarcerating numerous newly freed Black men for petty or trumped-up charges later working in subsequent dangerous, backbreaking, and menial work for American companies during the late 19th century makes us question the relationship between man and due process.7 Camp’s process of wrapping Henry in African colors, fabrics with signatures documenting his prison time, and horizontal lines evokes problematic imagery. In the prison like stripes and Afrocentric colors, we view the rigid doll as a physical standardization of the Black male body by the United States in the late 19th century as a targeted and uncertainly free subject-a laborer and prisoner with no voice in his own song and directed only by the industrial sounds of state or federal prisons and railway drills.  

Emilio Maldonado’s potent works interact with the Afro-Caribbean male body in direct ways. Maldonado paints his skin in black while he wears the new and discarded object in conjunction with his celebration of annual Dominican carnival body painting practices. During Carnival, the enslaved African’s body is completely covered with coal or burnt car oil while he dances and performs in the streets as Los Tiznaos. Maldonado’s reversal of US-American Blackface highlights and glorifies Blackness and African blood in his Dominican-Puerto Rican identity. US American Blackface jeers and promotes racism and stereotyping of African-Americans. However, he inverts the process of passing by layering more melanin on his beige Caribbean body. When one compares Maldonado’s other nude self-portraits to the works in the show, the skin differences are stark and at times sensual. 

In his three photographs, Maldonado addresses gagà Dominican religious ritual practices in each pose. 

Maldonado has painted his creamy skin a deep mahogany while inviting syncretic religious practices and mixed racial identities. During this process, he becomes not an enslaved African carnival character but an ancient reincarnated African deity. We no longer see Maldonado but a refigured New World deity; one free from the burden and evils of Spanish colonialism and slavery. He constructs a breathing figure who transcends the racism and discrimination of this world to glorify the Black body and spirit in the present.  

         Emilio Maldonado, Installation View, photographs and found materials, 2022-2024

In his exploded Shed Piece, Maldonado recreates his modest family home in San Pedro de Macoris into a deconstructed home of external and internal neglect and rejection.  The artist has made this home before for other exhibitions where he sat in the bottom half of the enclosed structure for hours. During this process, he would overhear conversations about his work. The artist remained relatively hidden and obscured by the work of his hands. In some ways, this anonymity forces the viewer to attend to formalist concerns of texture, color, and shape of the home.  We cannot make assumptions of the wealth nor scarcity of its builder, materials, or the artist with the use of his sturdy objects.  We cannot assume anything about the contemporary artist, particularly whether his actual family home was made of the same materials or if he made primarily aesthetic choices for this exhibition. Nevertheless, his professional background as an art handler is self-evident as the uneven lengths of the wood panels still create a unified and balanced unit. Maldonado’s shed home showcases his humble beginnings.

Emilio Maldonado, The Artist is Present,” 2022-2024, found materials

In his assemblages, his selection of Kensington, Philadelphia Dominican neighborhood refuse denotes Afro-Caribbean identity as rubbish in the racist minds of certain US-Americans. Interestingly, his solid life-sized media and materials for his shed piece contrast heavily from the efforts of contemporary Korean sculptor and installation artist Do Ho Suh’s sheer and light fabric sculptures of his childhood home. While both display diasporic longing and displacement, Maldonado offers the possibility of floating and grounded Caribbean spaces, inviting thought of unpredictable island waves of migration due to natural disasters or economic hardship. Moreover, we cannot enter Maldonado’s structure. It has been stretched apart leaving little room for privacy. The home lacks decoration but emphasizes its utilitarian nature.  In his use of trash and simple materials for the home, Maldonado elevates the ordinary to the sublime. His ability to shift and mask economic, racial, and spiritual identities in this age of saturated information induces wonder.                     

Both artists employ the figure in sportive ways. They playfully model the African body and spirit in the categories of the miniature and the life-sized body and build new diasporic languages of visual allurement and racial solidarity.  


1 Orishas (orisas, orixas) are the spirit deities venerated in Yoruba and Yoruban-based spiritual practices in West Africa and the Africa Diaspora (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Brazil) such as Santeria, Yoruba, Lukumi, and Candomblé.  See Tiffany D. Pogue, “Orishas,” The SAGE Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America accessed April 5, 2023,
2 Sarma, Rudrani, “Catching Tigers: White Childhood Nostalgia and Constructions of Blackness in Little Black Sambo,” Children’s Literature 50, 1 (2022): 121-162. From the Story of Little Black Sambo with a South Asian (Indian) boy named Sambo and his parents Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo written by Scottish author Helen Bannerman and originally published in 1899 to the term Sambo utilized pejoratively to describe a black person in the United States in literature, cinema, or advertisements, the term Sambo was a racialized term to describe a person of black and/or mixed ancestry in several cultures. 
3 “Toad Spawn in a pool,” Science Photo Library,  accessed Marcg 18, 2024,
4 Akinyi Ochieng, “Dashiki, A New Trend? Hardly,”, Accessed April 5, 2024. 
5 William Grimes, “Taking Swings at a Myth, with John Henry the Man,” Book Review of Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson, New York Times, October 18, 2006
6 Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry the Untold Story of an American Legend, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 90, 92.  In his review of prison medical records, Dr. Nelson states that these prison laborers also died from scurvy, dropsy, and consumption (tuberculosis bacterium) in high numbers on the job and upon their return from the tunnels and railway work-confirming the lethality of a Virginia State Penitentiary sentence.  
7 Nelson, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry the Untold Story of an American Legend, 53.
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