Come the (relatively) warm months of June-July, the classic flowery hairband would appear magically in popular stores -- attracting a lot of attention. You might have also spotted a larger-than-life-sized representation of Frida Kahlo, adorned with flowers, on one of the glass windows, covered by people clicking selfies or checking what hashtag to post. What is much needed is a step back from all these hyper-capitalist appropriations of Frida Kahlo and her legacy that reduce her to a unibrow and/or orientalist versions of her attire. The woman in discussion though is so much more—an artist, feminist, revolutionary, daughter, lover, wife, teacher, designer—than bumper sticker worthy quotes and the occasional Facebook tribute, perfectly in keeping with the zeitgeist is not enough for me. So, when one of the most beautiful museums in London announced an exhibition dedicated to her life, tracing how Frida Kahlo made her self, I had already made up my mind to get the tickets as soon as they went on sale.
The exhibition ends with a quote by Andre Breton describing Kahlo as ‘a ribbon around a bomb’, which appears kind of apt. The collection is a first-time show of Kahlo’s intimate belongings used by the artist since childhood until the very end, supposed to symbolize the meaning behind her thought process or understand her art better. A very detailed presentation of various phases in her life – childhood, family, travels, education, marriage, and illness help the viewer imagine her life in all its beauty and hardship. There is no toning down of traumatic episodes like the accident that impaled her body or difficult relationships. Stripped down to her bare essentials – her supporting corset (some with artwork on them), her personal letters (Mostly in Spanish), her relationships with the different men in her life, her experience of coping with illness, loneliness, and finding a home in her own art – makes the viewer feel as if they’re a close friend of Frida’s whose rather unique clothes on display can be borrowed or tried on. And, it is also a similar rawness in her chosen clothes and accessories—a certain naturalness that gave voice to her style, and the feminist and communist revolutionary within her.
It is in Kahlo’s talking (writing) of how she loves her (now iconic) eyebrows, her body insecurities, her frustrations with her husband, her dislike for America (she mocked Americans and called them Gringos), and her courage to continue fighting, repeatedly, every single time that make her so relatable. Her resilience is stupendously motivational. It also draws attention to the magical realism in Kahlo’s works, often startling yet also offering potential interpretations of Kahlo’s mind. Yet, it is this link between her thoughts and the final artwork that does not get fully explored.
While the collection (being shown for the first time outside of Mexico) is extremely well maintained, curated, and displayed, it adds little to our existing knowledge of her life. No one can deny the multitude of emotions felt on spotting a particular piece of garment and having Frida Kahlo gaze at you from a self-portrait or a photograph—in that exact same garment. But if you were to ask yourself, how did the artifact contribute to the making of the artwork, the exhibition is the wrong place to look for answers. It’s unnerving that similar exhibitions on Picasso or other mainstream male artists have focused more on the artwork than the person and in this exhibition, the artwork is not the center of the attention but Kahlo’s dresses, accessories, and medical apparatus is. But all of these personal belongings are still not used to expand our understanding of her artwork.
It is absolutely fantastic that at a time where the right wing is seeing a massive support in politics all across the world and hierarchies of the world are getting challenged especially by the so-called ‘global south’, a woman identifying as a communist and feminist has claimed space which has been hitherto claimed by privileged white men (Almost 80% of the audience during our slot consisted of only women). While the exhibition is a great effort by the curatorial team and a great opportunity for people to learn about Frida Kahlo’s tumultuous life journey, in the wake of the #metoo movement, it’s also an opportunity to think about how women artists are perceived and portrayed. How is their artwork presented? Is their pain romanticized? Are jilted lovers seen as a reason for their brilliant art, which somehow reduces their talents to still being directed by men? Is the artist objectified? These are only some of the questions we must engage with to better understand our perception of women artists and their artworks.
The exhibition might not be a perfect rendition of Kahlo’s artwork, but it is a step forward in the direction towards an intersectional feminist future. The path is already tough and burdened with systemic oppression and marginalization, but as Kahlo reminds us (post the amputation of her leg), “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly!”
Comments and suggestions are welcome.
About the Author
Annapurna Menon is a history graduate from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, India and currently pursuing her masters in International Relations from the University of Westminister, United Kingdom.