are we really honouring frida kahlo’s legacy?
Last week, the V&A’s much anticipated exhibition on Frida Kahlo opened, and alongside the excitement about being able to see pieces and artefacts never before displayed outside of the artist’s native Mexico, there came a deluge of controversial and questionable tie-ins, both online and IRL. While Vogue asked what we could learn about the revolutionary, radical, feminist artist from examining, of all things, her beauty regime, a London PR firm encouraged people to embrace “Fridamania” by paying £60 for a bottomless “Mexican-themed” brunch in Leicester Square. The Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition is supposed to make us look at Frida’s constructed selves, but actually, the hype around it has shone a light on how we as a culture honour her legacy -- and we don’t do it very well.
The commercialisation of Frida’s identity isn’t new. Earlier this year the artist’s estate entered into a bitter row with Mattel after the latter created a Barbie doll in her likeness without reaching out to them for approval. The problem was compounded by the fact that the doll, pale and able-bodied, with classic Barbie features and the obvious monobrow slapped on as though it was an afterthought, looked nothing like Frida. Even Salma Hayek, who played the artist in her 2002 biopic, slammed the doll on Instagram, writing: “Frida Kahlo never tried to be or look like anyone else. She celebrated her uniqueness. How could they turn her into a Barbie?”
But the Barbie, too, was just the latest in a long line of “Fridabilia” products, which reduces Frida’s artistic legacy to a line of tacky collectibles. When someone buys her likeness on a tote bag, make-up set, socks, iPhone cases jewellery, or anything else she’s been reproduced on, the irony is they’re using her image as a signifier for her feminism or politics, and by extension their own wokeness.
Last year she became a Snapchat filter, which played fast and loose with cultural appropriation, as the predominantly white, female audience who professes to love her so much were able to actually wear her face. Some critics have even argued that the levels of Frida’s celebrity and her status as a highly marketable figure have denigrated her own art, which focuses on physical pain, stillbirth, disability, feminism and bisexuality -- difficult topics which are often completely ignored in the pop culture persona constructed for her.
It goes without saying, too, that as an ardent Communist during her lifetime, Frida Kahlo herself would have struggled to reconcile her art being used to sell overpriced brunches or sugar skull make-up tutorials. “I feel uneasy about my painting”, the artist once wrote in her private diaries. “Above all I want to transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement.” In the same entry she referred to her dedication to the Communist revolution as “the only true reason to live for”. It’s hard to believe that just 60 or so years after writing those words, Theresa May would appear at the Conservative Party Conference wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet on her wrist, apparently without irony.
The way we remember Frida is obviously problematic, but it’s important to remember that it’s not all bad: the fact that we remember her at all is pretty revolutionary in and of itself. In an arena that’s traditionally been overwhelmed by white and male artists, Frida as a queer, disabled WOC is a revolutionary figure, and her outspoken views on feminism and female autonomy were also decades ahead of her time.
However mangled her persona has become along the way, she remains popular as an eternally interesting, enigmatic artist. On the prevalence of “Fridamania” in the New York Times, Guy Trebay writes that despite her art “having a moment”, she remains anything but exhausted as a subject. “She was a genius,” after all, “before she was a refrigerator magnet, an ace manipulator of society and media nearly a century before social media came into existence.”
The version of Frida we overwhelmingly see online, in self-congratulatory feminist-lite social media posts and in her endless merchandise is further and further away from her true, complex identity. Our version of her, Frida™, is a commercialised, sanitised version of her own identity, one that we can reduce to slogans and monobrows and Salma Hayek and quotes on cute tote bags.
The fact that Frida Kahlo has remained in our collective consciousness as prominently and for as long as she has speaks to the power of her art, politics and identity -- now we owe it to her to honour that by representing her properly, but through her paintings, her writing and her true self.
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This article originally appeared on i-D UK.