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Self-portrait

Self-portrait

Frida Kahlo, 1941

A herstory that was once forever destined to stand in the gargantuan shadow of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo's time to step into the sun finally arrived during the 1980s. The quiet and diligent study of feminist writers and art historians (that had been taking place since the 1970s) was bought to the forefront of the international art world when, at the height of her fame, Madonna purchased one of Kahlo's works for $1.5 million. Without a doubt, the media attention surrounding this purchase was the spark that ignited the public's fascination with not only Frida's work but her life.

Complex and layered, Frida's appeal and relatability can be attributed to the fact that she could never be defined by one thing. Simultaneously feminist, communist, queer, disabled, gender fluid, revolutionary, unapologetically herself and most importantly proudly Mexicana, it is no surprise that Frida remains a contemporary icon to so many marginalised groups that never receive the adequate mainstream representation they deserve.

The intersectional lens that we use today when we analyse Frida's work and life is how she always saw herself. Once famously stating 'I paint self portraits because I am the person that I know best. I paint my own reality', it was Frida's intuitive introspection that allowed her to create a representation of Mexicana identity that actively challenged the expectations and preconceptions traditionally placed on Mexican women.

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

c.1926. Museo Frida Kahlo

As with many other countries, machismo runs through every stratosphere of Mexican society bringing with it the expectation to adhere to strict gender roles. The crux of machismo permits men to indulge in extreme and excessive behaviour (womanising, drinking and aggression) as this is believed to make him more of a man. Women, who are expected to have a greater moral fibre and stronger self control, are ostracised for behaving in the same way. Fortunately, Guillermo Kahlo's (Frida's father who was of Hungarian-German origin) non-traditional expectations with regards to gender allowed her more freedom than most. As a result, Frida's life was full of experiences and moments that granted her access to develop personality traits and a way of thinking that has always been associated with machismo culture.

As a child, she was encouraged to take part in boxing and football to strengthen the leg weakened by polio in her childhood. In family photographs we see a teenage Frida commanding our attention whilst wearing her father's suits. The horrific bus accident after which doctors were sure that she would never walk again no doubt served to solidify her stubborn and rebellious streak as well as instigating her reliance on alcohol (she would often keep tequila in empty perfume bottles) and drugs. Her chosen method to numb both her chronic physical pain and the emotional turmoil she suffered from her abortion and miscarriages. Most telling is Frida's healthy sexuality which she explored with female and male lovers, her enjoyment of premarital and extramarital sex in direct opposition to the Virgen de Guadalupe ideal of Mexican femininity.

References to machismo culture and behaviour can be traced throughout Frida's artwork where they create a more human and balanced representation of feminine Mexican identity. Her decision to exaggerate her now famous unibrow, moustache and strong features give her self-portraits an androgynous appearance, which was perhaps her way of documenting the masculine energy she felt present in her spirit. Interestingly in his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution Diego Rivera portrays Frida as a masculine figure handing out arms to revolutionary soldiers. It's also been recorded that in an interview with American journalists Diego called Frida 'la pintora mas pintor', consciously using both the feminine and masculine terms for the painter, in recognition of her talent and maybe her androgynous nature.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America

Frida Kahlo, 1932

The depiction of cacti in Frida's work is not only symbolic of Mexico but can also be read as a manifestation of the quintessential Mexican word 'chingar'. This magical word has numerous meanings depending on your inflection, though its ultimate definition commensurate with the aggression, violence, pricking, rough sex and wounding associated with machismo. The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego, and Señor Xolotl illustrates a wounded Frida holding Diego as a baby in her arms. The phallic shapes and little 'pricks' of the cacti are symbolic of Frida's sexual desire and her yearning for a child. A bright red violent gash in Frida's chest is mirrored in the cracked breast of Mother Earth, showing that Frida is wounded by her barrenness.

The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego, and Señor Xolotl

The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego, and Señor Xolotl

Frida Kahlo, 1949

The Frida we see in Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America at first glance appears very demure, draped in a pale pink dress and adorned with long white lace gloves she seems like the epitome of a virtuous woman. Only on closer inspection can we see that her nipples are visible, her face stonewalls us with an IDGAF attitude while she casually holds a Mexican flag in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. Painted during the time Diego was immortalising modern industry on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, it reads as a casual 'screw you' (or 'chinga tu madre') to the American press and society that described her as Rivera's petite wife who sometimes dabbled in paint. To me, this portrait sums up the beauty of Frida Kahlo and illustrates why her art and life continues to enthral and capture the public imagination. What you saw with Frida was never what you got, she had no interest in conforming to social norms and she made sure that you saw the world through her eyes.

Shasti Lowton, curator and art consultant

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