Ever since Salma Hayek thickened her brows in 2002, Frida Kahlo has become a cultural icon in the U.S. Currently, the Bronx Botanical Gardens has mounted a tribute to Frida's life and work (more on that after I visit next Thursday) and recently artist Felipe Galindo Feggo presented a beautiful set of cartoons "Frida Kahlo’s New York" at the Mark Miller Gallery from May 7-June 7, in which a modern day Frida experienced the city.
Today, you can also buy everything with Frida likeness - clothes, wallets, bags of which I own many. It's not just specialty/ novelty shops either. Even Forever 21 has their own version.
Yet, as it is the anniversary of her birth (July 6, 1907) and death (July 13, 1954) this week, I think it is important to remember who Frida was other than something currently in vogue. Frida is much more than a passing fad.
Frida Kahlo was, as many talented people, a mixed bags of contradictions. She was a supremely artist who was underrated and overshadowed by the large masculine murals of both her husband and the times. While others painted grandiose paintings meant for scale and impact, Frida was introspective. She not only painted women when women were not meant to be more than background but demonstrated that the study of the women's soul and inner workings was worth the time and could inspire monumental artistry.
Frida was also a women who endured a lot of pain. She died young, like so many talented Latinas whose need to create pushes themselves beyond their physical limitations. Yet she never complained or made excuses for her work. She just used the pain to access a level of expression few can match - certainly not her more famous at the time husband.
Frida was a fashion icon before her time, a passionate lover, and energetic soul who lived to the fullest. She was also the daughter of a German immigrant, representing the diversity of Mexico that is often overlooked. And yet she was proud Mexican. Not only was her artwork a reflection of national and indigenous tradition, she embodied mexicanidad through her modern fashions for a traditionally inspired wardrobe of her own design.
She did spend time in New York City in the early 1930s and though she longed for Mexico deeply her paintings like “My Dress Hangs There,” helped Kahlo restore her sense ethnic identity and cope with the severe physical pain while navigating life in New York. Although she did show her work a little at that time, it is fitting that now she can so triumphantly return more than 80s year later when perhaps for the first time New York begins to acknowledge and celebrate the significance of Mexican ladies in NY.
So I celebrate both her popularity and truth and the separation between those with this poem. “Potrait of Frida Kahlo on a Wallet” forthcoming in my poetry book, Coatlicue Eats the Apple.
Portrait of Frida Kahlo on a Wallet
If Frida Kahlo were a graffiti artist
she would not look like this wallet portrait.
She could never draw noses and
her lips would never be so small.
Her earrings would be hands or monkeys
or Mayan artifacts or none at all but now
she is yellow and has two eyebrows.
Frida Kahlo the graffiti artist has lost her unibrow.
Savage monkeys and flower headdresses
blood thorns and bold panthers
the vines growing into her neck
are now, red pattern leather.
Her eyes more lazy lid than piercing stare,
the strong look of survival silent.
So I part with you, stylish Frida,
in the name of female facial hair and
animal prints and those daggered tears
–real female beauty etched with
droplets of courage scourged from
life’s painful duplicities –
I am cuffed to you
–-like linked chains-–
Melissa Castillo-Garsow is a Mexican American poet, fiction writer, scholar, hip hop head, former journalist, current essayist & editor working on a lot of cool stuff. She proudly lives in East Harlem. Learn more about her here.