When the "children" of soft sculpture artist Irma Francis are not on display in a local gallery, they pose and repose in her sunlit living room like queens on their way to a ball.
Crafted of rich textured batiks and patterned cottons, her inspired creations, dozens of life-sized dolls in elaborate costumes, are very personal statements of form and color. They are also unique case studies in African history and culture.
"These are my ladies," Francis said in the crackling accent of her native Grenada, hands on her hips mimicking one of her more stately originals. "Going to the marketplace is like going to the ball for many African women. They dress in their finest."
Her dolls, which she has been producing for more than 20 years, have been the focus of several one-woman shows and command prices of $500 to $5,000. Several are part of a new show at the Fondo del Sol gallery on R Street NW of works by 12 sculptors in various media entitled "Different Voices, Different Drummers."
Her newest work, her most political to date, is a kingly representation of Nelson Mandela in royal purple, surrounded by dozens of dolls symbolizing the children killed in the Soweto riots and their tormented mothers.
"Some people go out and hold placards," she said. "I try to make statements with my art."
A multi-media artist, Francis designs her own clothes, paints abstract oil paintings and writes thematic poems about love and time and freedom. She also holds a master's degree in African studies from Howard University.
Her approach to art is unusually holistic;
everything she believes in, her politics, her African roots, her religion and her feminism are expressed in her dolls.
"The calling of the artist is to help society," she said. Then, her face brightening into an almost reverent smile, "and to honor beauty. I love beautiful things."
She grew up among beauty in the Grenadian village of Pied mon Temps, where her family owned a prosperous nutmeg farm. Her father, a carpenter by trade, died when she was a baby, leaving Francis and her four sisters to help harvest the nutmegs, a task that gave her valuable time to think and dream. "I used to find a corner in the trees and read. It was a wonderful sanctuary."
In one singularly memorable moment as a little girl, she discovered African art and fashion all at once and immediately embraced them both. "I saw a magazine with African women in it with their short hair like mine, wearing great big earrings and gorgeous beads. And I thought they were so beautiful. I didn't know anything about African history -- I was learning about Henry V and Julius Caesar. So this fascinated me and I said, 'Gee, I want to look like that.' "
At 21 she came to Washington to study studio arts at Howard University and ended up staying and specializing in African studies as well.
While she first started sewing at 12, it was not until after her studies here that doll-making unfolded as her medium. With them she could pour traditional themes and modern materials from novelty shops and African markets into celebrations of an African in exile, she said.
Today she jockeys part-time jobs and doll-making with journeys to Africa in search of new fabrics and inspiration. Now and then she teaches an art course at the University of Nigeria. "Something is always pulling me to know more about Africa," she said. "It's like a treasure hunt."
Her creations are exquisite composites of African images and Elizabethan costumes made by draping fabric over wire frames covered with irridescent material. Woven into each is a mini lesson in history or mythology, much of it drawn from legends of the Yoruba tribe of southwestern Nigeria. There, she explains, people still believe their ancestors live among them, instructing and guiding their descendants through the "Orisha," or gods.
In her home, a reflection of all her interests, the hand-sewn dolls lend life, color and interest. In her upstairs studio, bunches of unclothed dolls pop up out of boxes near her tools on a corner work table.
"I love sculptures because I can move into them," she said, hugging one of her smallest creations. "It's wonderful seeing the dolls come to life. When you put the face on they sort of speak to you."
There is Jojola the Goddess of the River, 7 feet tall, who dominates her living room with her swirling costume of reds and golds and green. Jojola is the Mary of the Yoruba tribe. As the mother of water, she is the "symbol of fertility because spirits are embued in water," Francis explained.
There is Shango, the Nigerian God of Thunder in shades of purple and gold surveying the irridescent goddesses who legend says are his lovers, wives and former wives.
And there are her smaller Spice Island dolls three feet tall bearing names of Grenadian spices and fruits and wearing aromatic potpourri headdresses.
Once created, many of her dolls assume larger symbolic meanings, often religious, sometimes political. "A greater part of all art is religious, especially for women," said Francis, a Roman Catholic who left the church at a rebelious age 13 because she felt bad when she had to kneel and confess. "Religion belonged to women in ancient times. I want to reclaim that."
Which made it inevitable, perhaps, that one day Francis would turn her attention to the events of South Africa and to Nelson Mandela -- the month he is set to visit Washington.
"I wanted to do something different," she explained. The project took her one intense week of working around the clock. "It's an icon of this important man in this era of international politics. I feel artists should speak about these things."
The show at the Fondo del Sol gallery, 2112 R St. NW, continues through June. The gallery is open from noon to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.