• Brian O'Callaghan

Frida Kahlo - Inside and Outside

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

Frida: Inside and Outside at the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture theatre was a recent conference exploring the work and legacy of Mexican Artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954). The event saw a host of practitioners and academics unpack how Kahlo’s art expressed a reappraisal of Mexico’s indigenous heritage, and Kahlo’s fashion as resistance, in respect of her lived experience of disability.We know the artist as an enormous character who casts her shadow through popular culture in the same way as Che Guevara, or Warhol. From fancy dress parody to fashion shoots, commercial ’Fridamania’ can at times threaten to obscure the work of this complex and unconventional artist.  The Frida we meet over this engaging 2 day conference is a multi – layered and nuanced woman. Like peeling away the over paint on an ancient fresco, the distinguished scholars and speakers unlock the doors to a new Frida, seen through the gender political mood of her era and its wider culture. What is most engaging in this conference is the enthusiasm for Frida and her work. The poetic unlocking of the hidden rooms in her Blue house after fifty years in 2004 revealed many of the objects that form the current V&A exhibition Frida Kahlo : Making herself up. We learn that there are 22,000 documents and so much more to still be archived. It is a mammoth undertaking. The themes that Frida brings forth: how we configure our bodies, how the world genders us and how we gender space are rich and complex.Frida’s photographer father has a large role to play, a German Jew, he was an accomplished photographer and she dubbed him ‘ the one eyed man’.  Early photographs of Frida show her looking directly down the barrel of his lens with a fierce intentionality. Throughout her life, Frida played with her own image and the camera. She was both outsider and insider, a German father and a Mexican mother, part indigenous, part European, part colonised/coloniser, caught in a double bind.We see the artist as Mexico, a country moulded by countless traumas. The one thing we do not hear is Frida’s own speaking voice, no recordings exist. Frida said she wasn’t ill, she was broken, as more fragments are uncovered, we will continue to shape the mosaic of this enigmatic woman’s art. Other figures in Mexico’s post-revolutionary renaissance emerge into the light to claim their importance, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti, Maria Izquierdo are Frida’s contemporaries who have yet to enter the pantheon of allegorical women artists. What tools would Frida use today in our ‘selfie’ world to relate her experiences? Her dress was laden with symbolism, both a rich cultural tapestry and an armour.A highlight of the conference was Artist Alinka Echeverría’s lecture on the influence of ex-votos (votive paintings in the latin world typically depicting a trauma which the offeror survived) in the work of Frida. This linking of the human and spiritual and the tension between Frida’s interior and exterior worlds framed her work in a new angle.Perhaps Frida is still finding her voice, her pain speaks to us all, unlocking the rooms of our own memory. Frida remade and remodelled her own pain but it is her joy that lingers after the conference ends. Her passion to live and thrive in the moment is a lesson to us today. From all of her lived experience, her miscarriages, health and political challenges and romantic pain, Frida, the artist emerges unbowed and defiant, joyful in the dance of life. Though we continue to project much onto the Iconic artist, perhaps we are still searching for the key to truly unlock the work of Frida. That remains a mystery, like her speaking voice. This article also appears on the Central Saint Martins post - grad blog


2020 Brian O'Callaghan