Our History: Frida Kahlo

— By Asiel Yair Adan Sanchez 21 January 2017

Frida Kahlo is perhaps the most iconic and legendary of Mexican artists. Her shawls, flower hair dress and monobrow are immediately recognised all around the world. Her art celebrated all facets of her own inner experience, including her sexuality and gender.


Frida was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán in the fabled Casa Azul (Blue House). She often mythologised her own birth, changing the year to 1910 to align with the start of the Mexican revolution. This symbolised her strength, her commitment to the Mexican people and her rebellious spirit.


Since her youth, Frida was disabled. At age six, she contracted polio which required her to spend a lot of time in bed and with one leg thinner and shorter than the other. At 18, she suffered a major car crash with near fatal injuries; she fractured several ribs, her legs and collarbone, and was impaled by an iron handrail through her pelvis. Her life was marked by chronic pain, and prolonged hospital visits. It was during her recovery that Frida commenced painting.


All throughout her life, Frida retained a love for portraiture. Her first paintings were portraits of herself, her family and friends. During her university days, she met Diego Rivera- a famous and well-established Mexican muralist at the time. Frida gave several paintings to Rivera to judge, who immediately recognised her artistry. Two years later, they married, becoming the most influential artistic couple in Mexican history.


Many of Frida’s works were influenced by Indigenous Mexican tradition. From her 20s onwards, she opted to dress in traditional Mexican clothing, which led to her memorable attire. Faldas, huipils and rebozos became part of her regular wardrobe, often taking inspiration from the Tehuana region in Mexico. For Kahlo, the indigenous matriarchal society of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was the most authentic reflection of Mexican heritage. Her paintings often integrated Mexican symbolism and a distinct colour palette which gave them a unique voice in the art world. Despite often being labelled as a surrealist, Frida rejected this European label.


One of the first images that stuck with me was her family portrait at 20 years old. While her whole family is dressed in traditional Victorian clothing -which permeated much of Mexican middle and upper class at the time- she was dressed in a gentleman’s suit. It was the first time I’d encountered someone from my culture who was so brazenly gender non-conforming.


Her self-portraits often blur the boundaries of femininity and masculinity. In her own portraits, she often highlighted the masculine features of her face, like her bold eyebrows and facial hair. Likewise, she represented herself in masculine symbols as well as feminine ones. In her portrait El Venado Herido (The Wounded Deer), she chooses to represent her pain through a traditionally male symbol: a wounded stag. She goes one step further in Autoretrato con Pelo Corto (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair), where she comes to inhabit the masculinity her lover Diego Rivera represents. Gender did not limit her representation of her lived experiences.


She never subscribed to the sexual mores of the times. Although she had a life-long passionate love for the painter Diego Rivera, this did not stop her from having a number of passionate relationships with other men and women. Among her lovers, Frida counted Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, American entertainer Josephine Barker and Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.


Kahlo never subscribed to the idea of coming out. She refused to identify as bisexual despite relationships with people of multiple genders, and she portrayed herself with equal poise in femininity or masculinity without ever explicitly identifying as non-binary . Her sexuality and gender were as much of a playground as the expression of Mexican culture in her art. Kahlo never came out in order to lead her beautifully authentic life.


Kahlo was not without flaws. She repeatedly claimed to have Jewish heritage, specifically saying that her father was Jewish. This claim was later revealed to be false when research tracing Frida’s lineage showed that her father was a Lutheran German, and not Jewish at all. Frida never practiced Judaism, and she never claimed to, but she did pretend to have Jewish heritage, likely to distance herself from her German heritage. She brought up this claim when condemning the Nazis, and speaking out against other instances of antisemitism. While this was well intentioned, claiming to be part of a marginalised group that she wasn’t actually part of was harmful. It takes away from and speaks over actual Jewish people and their chance to represent their own community, and is in this way actually antisemitic itself.


Likewise, Kahlo often borrowed from diverse indigenous Mexican cultures to inform much of her art, politics, and dress. Although her grandmother was indigenous, Kahlo took this as license to appropriate a vast variety of pre-colonial Mexican culture, most of which was not directly part of her heritage. This means that it is often Kahlo’s appropriation of these cultures which are celebrated more than indigenous Mexican culture itself.


Despite some of her problematic actions and politics, Frida has become an undeniable symbol of Mexican art and culture both within and outside of Mexico. Her deeply personal style influenced a myriad of artists to come. While her sexuality, gender, disability and radical politics are often forgotten, to me, Kahlo will be first and foremost a symbol of queer Mexican heritage.