Identity

Frida Kahlo Showed Me a Shape-Shifting Vision of My Mexicanidad

Tokens of Frida Kahlo's imagination made real through her body and art are now on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

by Angie Jaime
Feb 26 2019, 6:10pm

Photo courtesy of Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. © 

Los Angeles claimed me by osmosis. A slow and rich love for a place that fed into me like a steaming mug of chocolate at my oracle grandmother’s kitchen table. Rich and thick and laden with the spice of my ancestors' lives reaching back into my mind and body in a soothing embrace. While I wasn’t born there, I grew there, like the bougainvillea vines climbing along the stuccoed walls and palm trees, reaching upward toward a sun that invites my leaves to unfurl. A replica of my parents’ Mexico that I grew up visiting and dreaming about as a child.

And now, all at once, New York.

I moved to New York around six months ago, trading those sunlit, idle days of southern California for raucous cigarette and pizza-fueled Brooklyn nights. Where Los Angeles sanded away my sharper edges, New York calls them into focus—sharpening the good, the bad, and the ugly into high definition. I am myself, only more so.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting The Brooklyn Museum, where, since early February Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving brings the first exhibition of personal items from Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico City into the United States. And while I’ve made the pilgrimage to the iconic painter’s home, a transcendent experience in itself, there was something about this exhibit that still lingers in me now. Something of Kahlo echoes in the same wine-red lipstick I wear to work. In the Indigenous huipil shirts I slip under my leather motorcycle jacket. In the ‘sin miedo’ (fearless) gold nameplate necklace that rests on my neck.

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Photo courtesy of Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. ©

These objects, tokens of her imagination given physicality through her body and art, now, once again, find themselves on display in this museum not far from my New York apartment.

I imagine that this is what it must have been like for Kahlo, in her treks to American cities across what she derisively called ‘Gringolandia’ (white people land). For her, as it is for me, New York proved to be a crucible; honing nascent perceptions into precise ideologies. Coming to New York for the first time with Diego Rivera in 1931, who she married just a few years prior, found a Frida who was at once dazzled by a city so advanced and shocked by its frivolity.

At the time, she wrote: “There is so much wealth and so much misery at the same time, that it seems incredible that people can endure such class difference, and accept such a form of hunger while on the other hand, the millionaires throw away millions on stupidities.” Still, the city charmed her, also writing during her time in the city, “New York is simply a marvel. It is hard to believe the city was built by humans, it appears like magic.”

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Photo by Javier Hinojosa courtesy of V&A Publishing
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Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Seeing this cacophony of disparities, a city at exploding both with wealth and disenfranchisement, Kahlo doubled down on her self-styling, creating an image of herself that gave shape to her radicalizing beliefs. In her complex and often conflicting otherness, appearing in the captivating floor-length skirts and loose blouses iconic to the Tehuana women indigenous to Oaxaca, Kahlo’s dress conjured notions of Mexican nationalism, patriotism, and alignment with the Mexican Revolution.

In orchestrated harmony with her growing radical views in the 1930s, she continued to engage with her personal style as a physical expression of her mind, body, and ideologies. Khalo began exploring the relationship to her disability from her 1925 streetcar accident that resulted in over 30 operations throughout the course of her life—as well as a nuanced understanding of gender and sexuality. Communist symbols adorned the plaster corset designed to align her damaged spine. Tehuana headdresses and ribbons crowned the hair she wove into Indigenous-styled plaits. Revlon lipstick in shades of ruby outlined her mustached lips and dark brow pencil gave shape to the masculine features of her face.

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Frida was a shapeshifter. An icon created from the fragments of identity she claimed for herself that wove together her Indigenous background, her communist politics, and her fluid sexuality. She was and is an unknowable force of Mexicanidad that calls back and forth across visible and invisible borders with the US.

She danced between femininity and masculinity, subculture and mass culture, American notoriety and Mexican authenticity, in an image of her own making radical resistance that reverberates in my own.

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is on view at The Brooklyn Museum from now until May 12, 2019.

Tagged:
New York
Frida Kahlo
Brooklyn Museum
Mexican artist
revlon