When I was asked to participate in the annual Friducha art show and La Bodega Gallery, I was very excited by the concept of making a piece centered around Frida Kahlo. I’ve had a fascination with Frida Kahlo from a very young age. I remember renting Frida, the biopic starring Salma Hayek, at Hollywood Video when I was around 12-13. I had learned about Frida Kahlo in school, albeit they taught a very sanitized version of her life. Kahlo is credited as being one of the first female Surrealist artists and is definitely one of, if not the most famous, and instantly recognizable Mexican artists. She paints self portraits saying, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Her work often deals with themes of heritage, pain, suffering, sex, death, femininity and the woman’s role in society, as well as her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera. Kahlo was a staunch Communist and much of her work comments on this ideology. Kahlo’s work is rooted in symbolism and she creates a complex system of meanings in her work through her use of repetitive imagery. Even her iconic unibrow becomes a symbol in her work. Kahlo’s work is complex, reflecting her complex life. She was a controversial figure in life and has become overly sanitized in death.
I began my piece for the show by doing research on Frida Kahlo, reading several biographies about her life and art. I tried to find biographies that would discuss her ideology, political activism, artist’s mind, health struggles, and her relationships with both men and women. While Kahlo is today portrayed as a storybook princess who’s paintings contain cute animals and flower crowns, there is such a true depth to her work and to her life that I feel gets left out of the accepted narrative. The art is powerful, disturbing, deep, and haunting. The work seems fresh even after decades. While Kahlo painted her image and her inner world, she tapped into something universal, a dark underbelly of emotions, torments, and anxieties all people face. However, a line becomes muddied when we seek to identify with Frida Kahlo herself rather than her artwork. It is interesting that many refer to her as Frida, like a close friend. Could you imagine referring to Van Gogh as Vincent? I also wanted to explore the ways in which Frida’s image has been commodified to sell products. There are thousands of cheaply made t-shirts and totes that bear her likeness. How would Kahlo react to this? How would the Communist react to the Capitalist coopting of her image? I thought these were good places to start for my piece for the show.
A theme permeating through my work is commodification and consumption. In Frida: Tautology, I wanted to comment on the fact that Kahlo exists now as nothing more than a symbol of herself, a symbol that is a simultaneously a victim of abuse and one who fights back, a signifier of minority, a signifier of women’s liberation. Mind you, it is not her art that is the symbol for these things, but rather her likeness, and at times a sort of photoshopped version of that likeness to boot.
I brainstormed about what I would want to represent in the work. I thought about appropriating symbols from Kahlo’s work to create some sort of mandala or image, but I settled on creating a portrait instead. This would stay in the vein of her work. I created her image using collage, pieces cut from the ads in magazines. All of the color in the piece comes from ads used to sell products aimed at allowing the purchaser to send a certain message. Much the same way those that purchase items with the likeness of Frida Kahlo want to send a message about the way they embody her ideals or spirit.
I was inspired by Kahlo’s painting Diego y Yo for this work. I liked the way that this was a different depiction of her likeness, more wild and emotional than the images of her with flowers in her hair and lipstick on, staring down triumphant. This painting is more raw as her hair seems to enclose on her neck and strangle her and the weight of her omnipotent husband weighing heavily on her brow. Tears are springing from her eyes as she looks directly at the viewer. We can feel her pain and the immense weight she carries in connection to her relationship with Rivera, a fellow artist and intellectual but also an abuser and oppressor. This is the mood I sought to evoke in my piece as I now questioned the burden of Kahlo’s status as a diety-like icon divorced of human suffering or emotion. Also as an icon whose likeness has been stripped down to its’ lowest common denominators.
I grappled with what to represent on the forehead. I thought about putting dollar bills and money there. Maybe an advertisement. Maybe an image of Jeff Bezos. However, I settled on a fragmentation of facial features that represents a fragmenting sense of identity as consumerism under Neo-Liberalism pulls us in ever contradictory directions. The gaping mouth representing simultaneously the greedy unsatiety of the masses seeking to consume and a calling out to a higher ideal and purpose. I like to think of this splintering in the way that our identity is increasingly intertwined with what we consume. The person buying this Frida Kahlo t-shirt most likely wants to send a message of affinity with Kahlo as a feminist icon but fails to see the irony of such a shirt existing at all. In my piece I wanted to call into questions our motives for catapulting an artist like Kahlo into icon status while we lose sight of the complexities of her life, ideology, and artwork. I will continue to explore these themes in my work as I work to educate myself about the balance of expression, consumption, and cognitive dissonance in our Neo-Liberal world.
I chose the title Frida: Tautology to engage the viewer from the onset. A tautology refers to the saying of the same thing twice in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style. As we restate Kahlo’s legacy, we reiterate her importance as an icon while undermining her importance as an artist and thinker. The tautology, in this case, is an infinite restatement of her likeness, on any imaginable consumable, without attribution to her complex inner ideology and network of symbols that are integral to her work.
Thank you for reading some of my thoughts! Let me know if you have questions about what I’ve said here. I do not like to take staunch positions on the facets of these arguments but rather hold a light to the facets themselves. Examination and questioning are always key themes of my work. - Stardust Coyote