As the NYT succinctly put it, on May 8, 2015’s headline, “Frida Kahlo Is Having a Moment.” Thursday night’s (July 16, 2015) “al fresco" evening at the Bronx Botanical Garden made that very clear.
It was a beautiful evening with perfect weather. Clear blue skies gave way to a cool evening enhanced by the infectious music of Radio Jarocho, Octavio Paz Poetry Walk, live performance art and painting, a Frida look alike contest, margaritas, red white and green tree lights, and of course, the replica of La Casa Azul. Walking through the already magical botanical gardens, the exhibition is a celebration of Frida’s love of nature and her home in Mexico City.
There was definitely a sense of “Fridamania” at the gardens, whereby contest participants as well as regular attendees honored her unique style with flowered hair pieces, traditional Mexican dress and of course, her famous unibrow. For some critics, this cult of Frida has diminished her standing as an artist. For example, in 2005, a critic for the Sunday Times of London attributed her fame to the fact that she was a bisexual Mexican woman with a disability—the sort of artist “that a modern teaching program at an American university finds most desirable”. Perhaps that is why, although she has become an icon to many of the feminist and LGBT movements and circles, when I mention her name to many male Mexicans, they do not know her name, or don't see her as significant. And yet her fame has surpassed even that of her former husband, with paintings selling for $10 million--a price that puts Kahlo in a league with Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol.
These are all men whose personal stories have also become greatly intertwined with thier work. Art history has always studied the personalities of the artists and the lives of Jackson Pollock, Jean-Michael Basquiat, van Gogh, and Michelangelo have all been immortalized on film, just like Frida. And yet, while critics have complained about the overemphasis on biography in art marketing by promoters of van Gogh, nobody ever says van Gogh is overrated.
And so rather then bemoan the interest in Frida’s life, I question those who dismiss it. As an art historian or critic, why wouldn’t you want to explore the mind of a woman who in every sense possible refused to follow any social or artistic conventions? She was not just bisexual or disabled, she also rebelled in her dress and most importantly, in her artwork (and aren’t those really one in the same, anyway?). Through her work of self-introspection she put on display the interior lives of women and by extension helped make that a worthy topic of study. Fifty years after her death, this is still something those of us who make women, and especially queer women of color, our main subjects must continuously justify.
And so rather than cringe at the “Fridomania” of “Kahlobilia,” I find myself excited by this continued attention and pleased with the Bronx Botanical Garden’s treatment of the topic. Here is a new layer that focuses less on the personal relationships and more on aspects of homemaking. In many ways, at NYC's own Casa Azul, the love affairs and traumas of her life actually subside a bit into the lush greenery and brought to the forefront is a new aspect of her persona. In her gardens we find Frida’s joy for the natural world, we see not just her pain, but a quiet happiness and peace.
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.