Frida didn’t let her dis­abil­ity de­fine her’

Grazia (UK) - - 10 Hot_ Stories -

IN THE CANON of great women artists, is there any as recog­nis­able as Frida Kahlo? Her image was the re­cur­ring theme of her work, and has gone on to ac­quire iconic sta­tus, im­mor­talised on ev­ery­thing from mugs to laun­dry bags. For many, she is a sym­bol as much as she is a woman. In that sense, Frida was her own great­est art­work.

Open­ing this week at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum is Frida Kahlo: Mak­ing Her Self Up, an ex­hi­bi­tion which ex­plores the com­plex­i­ties of the Mex­i­can artist’s iden­tity via a se­lec­tion of her per­sonal pos­ses­sions – clothes, the make-up she used to en­hance her mono­brow and paint

her lips red, jew­ellery and med­i­cal corsets – which were locked away for 50 years af­ter her death in 1954, un­der the in­struc­tion of her hus­band, Diego Riviera.

It’s a nu­anced por­trait of a woman who con­tin­ues to cap­ti­vate us. ‘I felt I met her for the first time,’ says the ex­hi­bi­tion’s co-cre­ator Circe Hen­e­strosa. ‘I saw an in­cred­i­bly so­phis­ti­cated woman, who found re­lease and free­dom through adorn­ing her­self and dress­ing. It’s the near­est we will ever be to her.’

What we wear sem­a­phores messages about who we are to the world. Clothes give us per­mis­sion to be the au­thors of our own iden­tity. And no­body knew that more than Frida. At the cen­tre of Mak­ing Her Self Up are Frida’s clothes, which she used to chore­o­graph her image. The full skirts, em­broi­dered blouses and shawls are beau­ti­ful, but un­der­pinned by pow­er­ful per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal state­ments about gen­der roles and na­tional iden­tity.

By turn­ing to tra­di­tional Mex­i­can dress, she was as­sert­ing pride in her na­tional iden­tity (Frida was ‘Mes­tizo’, iden­ti­fing as a person of Euro­pean and Na­tive Amer­i­can de­scent). Specif­i­cally, many of the pieces come from Mex­ico’s Te­huana re­gion, a ma­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety. ‘ What’s im­por­tant about this dress is what is sym­bol­ises. It al­lows her to por­tray her po­lit­i­cal be­liefs – she was a com­mu­nist,’ says Circe. ‘I think she was just try­ing to look very Mex­i­can and to find a place in a highly male­dom­i­nated en­vi­ron­ment’.

Cer­tainly, clothes en­abled her to as­sert her in­de­pen­dence as a woman, with­out sacri­fic­ing her fem­i­nin­ity. To dress in this way was at odds with the trends of the time. ‘Al­though Frida’s clothes seem ul­tra-fem­i­nine, ac­tu­ally they were a kind of lib­er­a­tion from what was fash­ion­able,’ ex­plains co-cre­ator Claire Wil­cox.

Clothes also gave Frida, ‘a kind of dec­o­ra­tive cara­pace around a core of great suf­fer­ing,’ says Wil­cox. She en­dured great phys­i­cal pain dur­ing her life­time. At six she was struck down by po­lio. Aged 18, a bus crash shat­tered her spine, and left her bed-rid­den for pe­ri­ods at a time. ‘ The start of her ca­reer as an artist co­in­cided with the be­gin­ning of the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of her body,’ says Circe. Clothes might have been a tool to con­ceal the dis­abil­ity (the long skirts disguising her shorter, thin­ner right leg, for in­stance) but they also show her fear­less re­fusal to shrink away. These clothes re­mind us that you don’t need a ‘per­fect’ body to en­joy beauty, or be beau­ti­ful.

Nor does Mak­ing Her Self Up shy away from Frida’s dis­abil­ity; her pros­thetic leg ( painted, of course) is on dis­play. ‘ We’re plac­ing it at the cen­tre,’ says Circe. ‘She didn’t let her dis­abil­ity de­fine her, she de­fined who she was on her own terms. And I think this is very in­spir­ing for any­one liv­ing with any dis­abil­ity. I wanted to put that de­bate out in terms of fash­ion and how we look at dif­fer­ent bod­ies.’ What’s re­fresh­ing is that while it is at the core of the ex­hi­bi­tion, this doesn’t be­come a show about a dis­abled woman, but a bril­liant artist who was also dis­abled. It couldn’t feel time­lier.

See­ing Frida’s pos­ses­sions up close is a poignant ex­pe­ri­ence that gives you a glimpse into the essence of her as a woman – not de­fined by her dis­abil­ity, gen­der, eth­nic­ity, or even just her art. She was all those things and so much more. ‘I would like peo­ple to come away with a true un­der­stand­ing of some­one they thought they knew,’ says Claire. ‘ We think she was com­pelling as a pho­to­graphic sub­ject. But in real life she was mes­meris­ing.’ Frida Kahlo: Mak­ing Her Self Up is at the V&A, 16 Jun-4 Nov, vam.ac.uk

Items in­spired by Frida, avail­able at the V&A Shop

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