We need to talk about sex and disability a lot more, according to Glasgow-based, Australian-born performance artist and choreographer Caroline Bowditch.
“There is a perception that we’re not sexual at all and people always assume that I’m heterosexual, which I always find fun,” she laughs.
Staring at her navel while locked into her first solo residency at Nottingham’s Dance4 studios back in November 2012, as an artist with disability, Bowditch thought about mining the topic she knew best: her own bones and the stories that live inside them. Little did she realise this introspection would lead her to falling passionately for modernist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
“I started to think about Indigenous people in Australia and how they paint skeletons on their bodies ceremonially, then I went to exoskeletons and thought about crustaceans and insects and all sorts of weird things,” Bowditch said.
“I landed up with the skeletons that get exploded with firecrackers on the Day of the Dead in Mexico and before I knew it, Frida had appeared in my head.”
Sparking something of an obsession, Bowditch ordered as many books on Kahlo as she could find, with new packages arriving almost daily.
“It was a bit like Harry Potter when the owls just keep delivering letters.”
While having dinner with fellow disabled artist Rita Marcello, Bowditch couldn’t stop raving about Kahlo.
“Rita just looked at me and said, ‘it sounds like you’re falling in love’. That’s where the name for the piece came from.”
A trip to Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City, supported by public arts funding body Creative Scotland, only deepened the adoration.
“It was amazing and completely overwhelming. Her energy is in everything and to see the marks she left and the impact she made, not only on her house, but also on other people’s lives, was just incredible.”
Working alongside text adviser Luke Pell, Falling in Love with Frida is Bowditch’s love letter to a fascinating woman whose personal story is often obscured. Debuting at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival, where it scooped the Herald Angel Award, it reclaims the woman behind her famous self-portraits and common ground with Bowditch.
Outlandish Arts will stage its Australian debut this week at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre as part of this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, before the show tours to Newcastle, Wollongong and finally Melbourne’s Melba Spiegeltent.
Performed alongside two dancers, Marta Masiero and amputee Welly O’Brien, British sign language interpreter Yvonne Strain is embedded in the performance, with several shows also offering audio-description accompanied by a tour of the set beforehand, so visually-impaired audience members can get a sense of the space as well as touch props and costumes. Bowditch also leads a Q&A after every show.
“I wanted it to be a conversation, I didn’t want this to be a piece that people come to passively.”
First encountering Kahlo in a retrospective at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia in 2001, examining her work in conjunction with two-time husband Diego Rivera, Bowditch recalls being oblivious to the painter’s disability.
“I remember wandering through the space, looking at the work and going, ‘it’s a bit weird, it’s not very happy, is it, really?’ I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that she was an artist living with disability, even though it was implicit in all of her work and if I’d really looked closely I would have seen that.”
Part of that blind spot had a lot to do with Bowditch’s own relationship to disability at the time.
“I couldn’t put that level of success and disability together. I never thought the National Gallery would be displaying the work of a disabled artist. I just couldn’t, and looking back, that’s really sad.”
Moving to the UK, where she says attitudes towards disability are a little more progressive than Australia, played a big role in helping Bowditch embrace that aspect of her life. Just as importantly, Falling in Love with Frida also celebrates Kahlo’s fluid sexuality.
“Frida was bisexual for a lot of her life,” Bowditch said.
“When Diego and her broke up, he had a million affairs with lots of women, including Frida’s sister. Frida had an affair with Trotsky, and it really didn’t please Diego at all, so when they got back together, the agreement was it was fine if Frida wanted to have her own affairs, but only with women.”
Laughing at the notion that a woman could not challenge Rivera’s masculinity, Bowditch is nonetheless intrigued by their open-minded arrangement, particularly as she argues we need to be talking much more openly about the sex lives of disabled people.
Art historian Salomon Grimberg’s Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself draws on unpublished material recorded in interview between Kahlo and her best friend, psychologist Olga Campos. It gave Bowditch the clearest look inside the mind of her intellectual crush, with many short, sharply drawn insights, including a forthright discussion of Kahlo’s sexual nature.
“There is a complete intertwining of our stories,” Bowditch said.
“I’ve taken her philosophy on sex, which is kinda the introduction to me. I talk about my first ever experience with a woman because it feels really important. You’re not expecting this from me at all.
"I really hope it starts some interesting conversations about all sorts of things about disability, sexuality and what it is to be a strong woman.”