• Frida Kahlo (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The ongoing debate about whether Frida Kahlo was guilty of cultural appropriation is a reminder of ways in which access, power and visibility shape our understanding of art.
By
Neha Kale

3 Aug 2020 - 9:39 AM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2021 - 2:52 PM

You can never scrub your memory free of the art that makes you feel seen. In my early twenties, living in London and working in retail, I’d spend lazy Sunday afternoons ambling around Tate Modern. There, during a retrospective of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, I came across the Two Fridas.

In the 1939 painting, made in the wake of Kahlo’s divorce from Diego Rivera, the legendary mural painter who famously had an affair with her younger sister, the artist paints herself as two women. The first Frida wears a high-necked Victorian dress that recalls the white-lace wedding gown her mother, Matilde Calderón wore to marry the artist’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, a wealthy German photographer. The second Frida wears a full skirt and huipil, a tunic traditionally worn by the Tehuana, the Indigenous Zapotec women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca.

The Two Fridas are joined by an artery that tethers their exposed hearts together. Only one of them is whole.

The fact that she teaches us that there are so many ways to defy the storylines that the culture prescribes for you is part of her enduring appeal.

Two Fridas has been reproduced so many times, you can look at it without really seeing it. But the first time I stood in front of the painting, it showed me something intimate about who I am. I was a young woman taught to be ashamed by the force of my emotions, to inhabit identities that never fit me. Here was an artist who wasn’t afraid of feelings, who showed her viewers how to embrace the many selves that they contained.

Kahlo’s intense paintings, which borrow from Mexican folk art, Catholic iconography and medical illustration, get at all the love and longing and horror of the female experience. But the fact that she teaches us that there are so many ways to defy the storylines that the culture prescribes for you is part of her enduring appeal.

She contracted polio as a six-year-old, broke her back in a 1925 bus accident and taught herself to paint, committing the experience of living in a disabled body to canvas. She secured a solo show in New York and won the admiration of Pablo Picasso and Andre Breton in a world that only cast as her the wife of Diego Rivera. Fiercely political and proudly queer, her lovers included Leon Trotsky, Georgia O'Keeffe and Josephine Baker.

If you’ve ever been relegated to the margins of the culture, struggled with the pain of feeling invisible, chances are there’s a version of Frida for you.

If you’ve ever been relegated to the margins of the culture, struggled with the pain of feeling invisible, chances are there’s a version of Frida for you.

Unfortunately, late capitalism has turned Kahlo into a global brand, the subject of Snapchat filters, children’s books and even a bracelet worn by Theresa May, whose politics the artist would have abhorred during her lifetime.

And as Kahlo’s image has become ubiquitous, critics have also started questioning the source of her cultural power – namely the ways in which she was able to cross boundaries, become the author of her own image because of her status as an urban Mexican woman and her social class.

Kahlo’s mother was mestizo, Mexican of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. But the artist didn’t share the lived experience of the Tehuana, the Indigenous women whose dresses the artist made central to her paintings, chosen because of their associations with matriarchal society and a legacy of oppression and displacement. For Kahlo, this was an act of political solidarity, part of Mexicanidad, the celebration of Mexican visual culture she helped pioneer, alongside Rivera. By modern standards, it can also look dangerously close to cultural appropriation.

Kahlo’s mother was mestizo, Mexican of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry.

“[Frida] made liberal use of her favoured status, adorning herself in clothing from Indigenous cultures that exist in the present, like the Zapotecs and the Juchitán, people actively oppressed by both white and nonwhite Latinxs who collaborate with colonisation, be it willingly or unwittingly,” writes the Mexican writer, JP Brammer in a March 2018 IntoMore article.

“Frida Kahlo [bridges] these different levels of Mexican culture, [bringing together] the fine arts, the culture of a European background with her love of Mexican culture or rural culture,” says the Latin-American curator Victor Zamudio-Taylor in 2005 PBS interview. “I think it’s from the heart but she knows that she has this gift as well as the privilege to make this choice. Other women did not.”

Of course, Kahlo is part of a long history of artists who owe their artistic freedom to their power, access and visibility. Paul Gaugin owes his simple shapes and flat forms to the visual language of Polynesia, where he spent much of his life in exile. Iconic Australian painter, Margaret Preston, famously borrowed Aboriginal motifs (banksias, boomerangs), abstracting them from context.

But during a moment that asks us to overthrow age-old hierarchies, it’s important that we ask questions about who gets to represent our many selves. Kahlo was a queer, disabled woman of colour who used all the power she had at her disposal to fight for her place in art history. We need to give lives that are unlike hers a chance to be seen and heard, to shape the culture like she did, too.

Neha Kale is a Sydney-based art and culture writer and critic.

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