Painting Frida Kahlo

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

As we begin the month of October and ghosts decorate our homes, I am reminded of the holy days that await us. Poignant to my own background, Dia de los Muertos beckons us to remember who has gone before us. Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that is officially celebrated on October 31 and November 1 in a manner similar to the pagan Samhain holiday and the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

It is a time for Mexican families to remember their lost loved ones, to celebrate their lives, and to pray on their behalf.

As we prepare for Dia de los Muertos, I remember and grieve my brother, but I also cling to some of the queer holy women whose lives and legacies embolden and empower us still. The holy woman icon dearest to my heart this month is none other than the Mexican revolutionary and feminist artist, Frida Kahlo.

Ever the revolutionary, Kahlo insisted that she was born on July 7, 1910, which is three years and one day later than her birth certificate indicates. Believing so deeply in the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo wanted her life to begin with the modern life of Mexico.  During adolescence, she never showed a tremendous interest in art. But in September of 1925 everything changed. Kahlo was injured while riding a bus that collided with a trolley in Mexico City. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and uterus.

Covered in the gold dust of another passenger on board, she was rushed to the hospital only to discover that she had a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, along with eleven fractures in her right leg, a dislocated shoulder, and a crushed and dislocated right foot.

It is during the subsequent three months in a full body cast that Kahlo began experimenting with painting in earnest.

It wasn’t long before Frida Kahlo and the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, fell in love. Over time, they became part of the “spiritual landscape of Mexico, like Popocatepeti and Iztaccihuatl in the valley of Anahuac” (Hayden Herrera, Frida, 106). Though she savored her role as the adoring and beautiful wife of the “genius artist,” she was also a queer feminist, artist, and political revolutionary in her own right. In fact, one may say that Frida Kahlo was the inaugurator of folk feminist art, emblematic of national and indigenous traditions, offering an unwavering depiction of the female form and experience. Upon marrying Rivera, she maintained her own last name, something almost unheard of in 1929. This gesture was indicative of her stance on many issues.

Their marriage was a troubled one. Rivera had relationships with many other women, including a marriage-ending tryst with Kahlo’s younger sister, Cristina.  The couple remarried one year after being divorced. Frida, a sexually fluid woman, also had relationships with other men and women. Drawn to fellow artists who defied binaries, Kahlo also had relationships with artist Isamu Noguchi and dancer/singer/actress Josephine Baker. Like Rivera, Kahlo did not feel confined to the boundaries society placed upon married couples, artists, or women in general. Though the language was not readily available to her at the time, Kahlo may well have identified as bisexual, and she was certainly not constrained to hetero-monogamy.

Kahlo is remembered for saying, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down…The other accident is Diego.” Her life was riddled with anguish. She suffered physically from her bus accident; she suffered emotionally from her intense love and utter despair enmeshed in her marriage; and she suffered spiritually as a Mexican revolutionary who longed for equal treatment for all her people.

This suffering, of course, manifested itself in her painting, both on canvas and on her body.

In her countless self-portraits we gaze at one who adorned her body with the classic Mexican dress, which she claimed, “has been created by the people for the people.” Ribbons, ruffles, bright colors, jewels, and sashes increased as Kahlo’s health decreased. This radical adornment was not merely decorative, but an act of defiance, drawing the eyes away from her illness and toward the beauty that covered it.

As I considered how I might pay homage to this revolutionary queer feminist artist, I knew at once she must be seated in front of casa azul, the home that birthed her love of painting, the home where she first learned of revolution, the home where she thrived most, and the home where she suffered most. Draped in the dress that connected her more fully with her people and the earth, Frida gazes back at us, her arms outstretched in a gesture of embrace, as though she is liberating the Mexican people she loved so deeply. Seated in front of the home where she learned to paint her reality, her heart cries out to us:

Broken and bent
Yet her heart soared…
Revolutionary, adorned
And affirmed,
She painted her reality

Kahlo’s reality was one of suffering—individually and corporately. Unconstrained by sexual binaries, she loved deeply, fully, and bravely. In these ways she emboldens us to power on, creating beauty in the midst of suffering, and seeking to create a world where all humanity is treated equally.

Artwork by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber