With the surge of Frida Kahlo's artwork resurfacing within mainstream culture, let’s discuss those who are respectively appreciating her, and the ones who are merely appropriating her image.
Words by Natalie Blain
As someone who has been a fan of Frida Kahlo for many years – first seeing her work on my Tumblr feed as a fifteen-year-old internet fiend — I was thrilled when I saw ‘Making Her Self Up’ advertised on the V&A website. The exhibition consists of a collection of personal artefacts, displays everything from clothing to artwork that belonged to Mexico’s most iconic, feminist, political artist from the 20th century. With this on display at one of London’s top museums, I can’t help but notice the surge of interest in Kahlo and how so many people in the creative industry are jumping on the Fridamania bandwagon, to appreciate her iconic work or, in some cases, appropriating it.
Kahlo was a self-taught painter and member of the Mexican Communist party. Her work focused on her life involving feminism; bisexuality; stillbirth; disability; and physical pain due to her Polio diagnosis and being in a traffic accident when she was eighteen years old. She would create surrealist imagery exploring difficult topics ignored in popular culture — some of which are often still overlooked to this day.
Earlier this year a Barbie doll was created of Frida as a celebration marking International Women’s Day. However, distant relatives of Kahlo gained an injunction against the toymaker.
She was a woman ahead of her time and a badass for many reasons, a favourite being when she found out her husband, Diego Rivera, was cheating on her with multiple women, so she also slept with them as a way of getting back at him. She should be remembered, not just for her mono-brow and floral headwear, but her work as an artist in a male-dominated society – one that thought females should obey their husbands and accept it when they had affairs.
Despite all of these ‘controversial’ topics covered in her work, she’s widely recognised for her image, and it is her image that has been wrongly represented the most. Her self-portraits are printed onto T-shirts; tote bags; mugs; cheap canvases; and birthday cards in ‘hipster’ boutiques and online stores. Even Theresa May was seen wearing a bracelet with Kahlo’s face attached to it — ironic as Kahlo had completely different political views to our current Prime Minister.
Earlier this year a Barbie doll was created of Frida as a celebration marking International Women’s Day. However, distant relatives of Kahlo gained an injunction against the toymaker, Mattel, as they had no rights to use her name or image. The main issue was how it, “didn’t reflect Kahlo’s heavy, nearly conjoined eyebrows, and its costume didn’t accurately portray her elaborate Tehuana-style dresses,” as stated in The Guardian.
Mattel and Barbie’s portrayal of Kahlo was also criticised for the promotion of society’s expectations of what women should look like, rather than how they naturally look like, and this is an issue that the company has been involved with repeatedly. And let’s not forget when Kahlo was made into a Snapchat filter, and rightfully taken down after cultural appropriation complaints were made. It’s not just big corporations that have been under criticism for appropriating the Kahlo legacy and image.
The fashion industry also references the late feminist artist. During Graduate Fashion Week this year, UCA Rochester’s fashion show featured two collections, with Frida Kahlo as a leading source of inspiration, by Tira Liscent Spence and Kirsty Walmsley. “I was influenced by [Frida’s] Spider Monkeys and leaf prints, combining those elements with the London streetwear silhouette for my menswear collection,” Tira explains. Kirsty’s designs, “consisted of flowers created from lace, glitter and knitwear, with painted and embroidery stems to recreate Kahlo’s love for nature as well as embracing her ardency for animals by using leopard skin faux fur.”
In 2015, Valentino was influenced by the artist’s styling choices for their Resort Collection, consisting of garments reminiscent of traditional Tehuana dresses. The Italian fashion brand decided to cut the skirts well above the knee — something Frida would never have worn as she liked to hide her legs due to her disability. Having major fashion brands reference the artist’s work can be seen as a positive as it’s a way to keep her name alive, but there are ways in which it can be done more thoughtfully.
Up and coming singer/songwriter, Cici Lara, has released a new single, Flower Fountain with a music video inspired by Kahlo’s self-portraits from 1940 and 1941. The music video depicts her hairstyles and the different representations of womanhood and reclamation of femininity, as well as being filmed in an Asylum chapel in Peckham, linking the marriage of Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera, to the video.
With all these people contributing to the misrepresentation and commercialisation of Frida Kahlo’s image, whether it’s being done deliberately or innocently, it’s essential that these people understand that we need to be showcasing and celebrating her work that involved queer, feminist, disability and political issues, and not just her facial features and distinctive style.