September 12, 2003

Frida Kahlo Transcends Time and Embodies Chicanisma

By Perlita R. Dicochea

As I walked through the last Saturday of the enchanting Frida Kahlo photo exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Art, I thought for certain that if Frida were alive today she would surely support la causa Chicana. In all of her obsessions with Diego, communism, Mexican folklore, and her hair and nails, I thought how incredible it must be to be Frida passed on. At this moment, Frida observes the phenomenal impact she has had on a generation of spunky, courageous mujeres – some of whom remain steadfast in their determination to keep alive a bold sense of Chicanisma. A posthumously labeled “narcissist” by Mexican critics, I wonder if my own desire for Chicana labeled goods could not also be a form of narcissism.

I have Xicana decaled on the back window of my Honda, painted on a leather pendant, and sprawled across many cotton t-shirts. The latest addition to my collection was a birthday gift. The black T borrows the yellow rolling hills of the “Real California Cheese” ad campaign, but instead is framed with “Real Califas Chicana.” Meanwhile, Frida accompanies me on the walls of my living room, dining room, and bedroom. There is no denying Chicanisma and Frida Kahlo go hand-in-hand.

Is this a case of Chicana Frida fanaticism? Maybe. Obsession? Definitely. And, let’s face it, many of us have the same fixation on the hair and nails as the Frida photos on display at MOPA revealed. The ability for today’s Chicana to identify with her majesty is admirable.

The MOPA exhibit displayed originals of many mass-produced photos: Frida leaned against the wall in black baggy pants, a thick white button-up man’s shirt, and smoke in hand; Frida wrapped in re-bozos and indigenous jewelry; Frida with her monkeys and little Mexican dogs; Frida carisiando a Diego in her uniquely decorated kitchen. They say that when Frida got ready for the day, her dressing and preening was a performance in itself.

Her house was very much and continues to be a performance as well. I spent the summer in Mexico when I was 18. At least once a week I would take the pesero from the southern Mexico City, where I stayed with a family, to visit Frida’s house in Coyoacan. The kitchen was one of my favorite rooms. I liked to imagine Frida placing all the little ollas and pitchers on the wall that read “FRIDA Y DIEGO.”

I was also pleased to see photos that gave a peek at the lesser-known details of her intense relationships with other women, men, and the camera. Her father, a photographer, saw to it that Frida’s consciousness of the pose and power of the camera began at age five. Even in the face of the five-year-old Frida, the first photo of the exhibit, one can hardly tell whether she smiles or frowns, whether she is happy or sad. In another photo, the adult Frida sits with the same expression beside a Picasso piece. The exhibit notes her friendship with Picasso and his admiration of Frida as the surrealist master of modern time.

I was most struck by a photo of Frida in her last few years laying down side-by-side with a close girlfriend of hers. Her friend smoked a cigarette. The accompanying write-up surmised that Frida’s smoke was of a different sort – most likely to ease the burden of her constant pain. This is the girlfriend that was with Frida at her New York debut and during her first traumatizing miscarriage. The comfort the two women display chillin’ in midday reveals so much about the treasured friendship. It reminded me of my own dear friend, María, a colega of mine whom I dearly miss. We used to kick it just like that – not necessarily with smokes, but perhaps at one of our favorite coffee shops – when we both lived in Berkeley.

I was unaware of Frida’s activities during her 9-month hospital stay. A photo shows a model at her side while she begins to paint in the hospital bed and lively, political body cast. The write-up tells how Frida painted throughout her hospital stay, had many visitors, and even orchestrated puppet theater performances on numerous occasions.

For some, narcissism might be all too apparent an explanation of Frida’s life’s work. Indeed, in one photo we see Frida in her studio painting yet another image of herself. In view on the large background wall behind Frida hangs a famous photo of her in an artsy flamboyant frame of her own making. Even so, one can also easily gather from the MOPA exhibit that “narcissism” is far too empty a term to describe Frida’s desire to, in her words, create her “own reality” with countless images of her self and visions of her context.

In Frida’s keen self-awareness, Frida must have known that it was not physically possible for her to live long into old age – what with all of her ailments and operations. Thus, there had to be a certain degree of necessity to compulsively create self-portraits. As a matter of survival Frida extended her life on canvas and was able to cope with an ultimately debilitating pain. And if she could not reproduce her self in human form, she could multiply in her own image.

Does a narcissist keep so active for nine months in a hospital bed, putting together puppet shows and decorating her body cast for all the staff and visitors to enjoy? Does not narcissism assume a great deal of unnecessary and pointless self-aggrandizing? The photo exhibit showcases Frida as a master at keeping her mind vibrant, and her skills and senses always developing. What more, it takes a strong vessel of energy to withstand her own raw emotions. Frida’s raw emotions stare back at her and at all those who would admire her art.

Even “survival” limits how contemporary audiences can imagine her work. Frida displayed a wide range of feelings that made her fully human and something more. We see through her paintings a sense of reality that most of us are too fragile to know about our own.

It seems to me that Frida was able to live on earth as long and colorful as she did by opening to a world beyond herself. Long after her despedida we observe something of a spiritual process in Frida’s work, a process which neither descriptors “narcissism” nor “survival” capture.

Perhaps we do understand this if only subconsciously. Chicana feminists, in particular, want to know her and think of her on our home altars, on the kitchen wall, and above the headboard just under the sacred heart of Jesus. Frida is collaged on wooden crosses and the star of muertos celebrations in hope that our own life journeys can be as painfully and positively full as hers. At the very least, Frida Kahlo is the kind of role model that makes being Chicana surreal.

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