The battle for the possession of Frida Kahlo’s soul erupted this June 13th on the alabaster esplanade of Mexico’s maximum house of culture, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a rococo wedding cake of a palace that is slowly sinking into this mega-city’s subsoil. The occasion for the artful free-for-all was a visit by freshman president Felipe Calderon to cut the ribbon at the Mexican government’s official homage marking the centennial of the painter and her feverish oeuvre. Kahlo’s work is considered one of Mexico’s most lucrative national treasures.
But many here in Mexico City are convinced that Calderon stole the presidency last July 2nd from the wildly popular former mayor, the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and availed themselves of the opportunity of the opening of the magna Frida show to display their convictions.
In anticipation of Calderon’s arrival, several thousand AMLO supporters crowded onto the steps of Bellas Artes to reclaim Frida from Mexico’s rightist president, some indeed dressed as replica Fridas. “Frida belongs to the left” they shouted, “Calderon! Don’t prostitute our Frida!”
The arty, angry mob of Kahlo’s defenders was met by metal barricades, phalanxes of vizored robocops, tear gas, and truncheons. There were sharpshooters up on the roofs surrounding Bellas Artes’ glass dome, now stained nicotine-brown by the capitol’s unquenchable traffic flow. The President had to be escorted into the palace by a flying wedge of federal police and his elite military guard.
Inside Bellas Artes, 3000 “special invitees” had been wanded by metal detectors and installed under the rotunda to offer hosannas to the President but the press was barred from what Calderon’s press office insisted was an “acto privado” (a private act.) In fact, the inauguration of the Kahlo centennial was as much of an “acto privado” as Calderon’s own inauguration as Mexican president last December 1st in a private ceremony attended only by high-ranking generals and admirals.
The stringent security precautions were invoked by another fracas outside Bellas Artes just two nights earlier when Calderon arrived for a recital by the internationally celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma. “Bootlickers!” “Cucarachas!” AMLO’s people had spat at the elegant concert goers in an outburst of open class warfare. “Ratas!” screamed an elderly protestor, lightly dusting the expensive gowns and “smokings” (tuxedos) of the culture vultures with what she claimed to be rat poison. Inside the concert hall, Calderon was greeted with a chorus of boos as he was seated in the presidential box. “They didn’t all come from the cheap seats either” one witness e-mailed La Jornada columnist Julio Hernandez, “plenty of the ricos in the orchestra booed too.”
Calderon’s two trips to Bellas Artes were touted by the President’s press office as his “cultural debut.” After six months of leading a tough talking but largely ineffectual military crusade against the nation’s powerful drug cartels, Calderon’s handlers are trying to create a softer image. His attendance at the Yo Yo Ma concert and the Kahlo centennial (which will be followed by a 50 years-since-his-death show featuring her husband Diego Rivera) were designed to put a more human face on the shrill, fast-talking president.
June 13th – the hundredth anniversary of her birth – was not the first “bronca” (melee) that Frida Kahlo has unleashed at Bellas Artes. When Frida passed on to the Big Easel in the Sky at the age of 47 53 years ago, Rivera, an outspoken member of the Mexican Communist Party, and his comrades rolled her casket into the fine arts palace where she lay in state proudly draped by a red flag with a prominent hammer and sickle emblazoned upon it as her fellow militants intoned “The Internationale” in tribute, a scandalous breach of political decorum back in the Red Scare 1950s. The next day, President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, a Cold War ally of Washington, summarily fired the director of Bellas Artes.
Kahlo’s leftist credentials are still in working order. She followed her larger-than-life husband (20 centimeters taller than the diminutive Kahlo, 20 kilos heavier, and 20 years older) into and out of and back into the Mexican Communist Party although their flirtation with Trotskyism and Leon Trotsky himself when he was offered asylum in Mexico in 1937 (Kahlo’s interest proved more than flirtatious) incited fellow muralist David Alfaro Siquieros to try and take Diego out with a machine gun.
When Trotsky was assassinated in 1940 by the Stalin-sent hit man Ramon Mercador in his Coyoacan home five blocks from Frida’s “Casa Azul” (Blue House), Kahlo was arrested and held for questioning – she and Rivera fled to San Francisco soon after her release.
In the 1940s and early ’50s, Joseph Stalin, often fondling a dove of peace, was a frequent motif in Frida’s paintings and drawings. She wore a corset decorated with a hammer and sickle and by 1954, the year her pain-wracked, morphine-saturated body gave up the ghost, she had begun to incorporate Mao in her work. Her last public appearance was in a wheelchair (her leg had been amputated) at a march outside the U.S. embassy to protest the CIA’s overthrow of the leftist Arbenz government in Guatemala at which she purportedly carried a “Yanqui Go Home!” sign.
Given her militancy on the anti-Yanqui Left, Frida must be spinning in her sarcophagus these days. The tab for the magna exposition of her life work at Bellas Artes is being picked up by Wall Street – the show’s patrons, Alfredo Harp Helu and Roberto Hernandez, are president and CEO of Banamex, now owned lock, stock, and barrel by Citygroup. In fact, Harp Helu’s foundation which specializes in the preservation of archives, has been given exclusive control over a hither-to unopened treasure trove of 26,000 “intimate” Kahlo-Rivera items – drawings, correspondence, and priceless memorabilia that will be exhibited incrementally at the Casa Azul, now a museum and the touchstone for international Fridamania.
The much-ballyhooed Kahlo centennial show is more hype than homage – Bellas Artes expects 300,000 visitors during the summer tourist season. About a third (120 of some 300) of Kahlo’s paintings are on display, many of them still-lifes that seem to have been knocked off for street sales in her Coyoacan neighborhood and portraits of wealthy patrons that she hustled for ready cash. But to be sure, Frida is everywhere in the main gallery – with her heart in her hand, with her other Frida, with monkeys, with parrots, with flowers, cradling baby Diego in her arms
Perhaps more intriguing than the paintings, which have been so universally reproduced that they seem almost overly familiar, is a floor full of photographic evidence of Frida’s life. Taken by such luminaries as Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Edward Weston, and her own father Guillermo Kahlo, a German Jewish immigrant (her mother Matilde was ominously surnamed Calderon), the photos show a more relaxed Kahlo, often at play.
Although the iconic Frida dominates this mammoth Fridarama, the political Frida is hardly in evidence, consigned to a fourth floor cubbyhole and marginalized by Calderon’s curators in an apparent ploy to white out Mexico’s – and Kahlo’s – red past.
By most accounts, Fridamania sprung whole from the womb of the feminist surge in the U.S. in the 1970s. Critic Raquel Tibol, no friend of the flagrantly bi-sexual Kahlo, attributes the phenomena to “Lesbian chic.” Kahlo’s intense suffering – polio at six, a horrendous streetcar accident that drove a metal rod through her spine at 18 – and her courage as an artist, made her an overnight icon for the burgeoning Chicana movement and Chicano identity politics. In the get-rich-quick “80s and ’90s, Kahlo’s tortured paintings became a hot investment item. She opens at $7,000,000 on the international art market.
The commodification of Kahlo has been brutal. She has become a doll, a perfume, a brand of tequila, a line of clothing (Frida jeans), designer sneakers (Converse), even a pizza parlor in San Francisco’s Mission District (“Frida’s Pizza.”) The Bellas Artes centennial is dotted with booths vending Frida pins and Frida lighters and display cases glittering with Frida accessories.
Fridamania peaked with Salma Hayek’s 2002 biopic of the same name. Although both Jennifer Lopez (Jay-lo) and Madonna (she travels with a portrait of Frida giving birth to herself) were dying for the role, Hayek, the daughter of a Lebanese-born Veracruz politico, grabbed the property and starred, directed, and financed Hollywood’s first Frida flick.
“Frida” was universally dissed in Mexico where audiences don’t really cotton to Hollywood “Latino” extravaganzas in which the actors speak English with “Hispanic” accents. When “Frida” opened in Los Angeles, Chicana activists protested with signs that charged “Salma promotes racism” and “We are here to defend Frida from Salma’s treason.”
For most Mexicans, the real Frida is Ofelia Medina, a leftist soap opera star, who played the tempestuous painter in an impressionistic 1984 Paul Leduc art-flick, “Frida, The Natural Life.” Since then, Medina has taken Frida on the road, performing one-woman shows in Europe and the U.S. A long-time supporter of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Medina was not impressed with Hayek’s version of Frida, which she characterized as “lite.” “They shaved off Frida’s mustache,” Ofelia complained indignantly. Nonetheless, “whoever wants to be Frida is Frida. But she – or he – must be on the left” Medina cautions.
Also among Frida’s daughters is Jesusa Rodriguez, a Mexico City actress and cabaret entertainer who devises shows with multiple Fridas – Rodriguez was AMLO’s M.C. at mammoth rallies after last year’s election was stolen -, and Lila Downs, the Oaxaca-born, Minnesota-raised pop singer who performed the “Frida” soundtrack at the 2003 Oscars. “Frida was really anti-Yanqui” muses Downs, who wears Kahlo’s trademark “tehuana” blouses and pulls her black hair back severely in the classic Frida-style, “I don’t think she would have sat through Salma’s movie.”
The Left does not have the exclusive franchise on Frida’s soul. Feminists and lesbians venerate Saint Frida and even the Jews want a piece of the action. Her father Guillermo was a Jew from Baden-Baden (little Frida was raised Catholic) and the painter lost relatives in Hitler’s concentration camps. Her diaries have been translated into Hebrew and Israeli Frida expert Gaddit Ankori claims Kahlo spoke Yiddish. The Jewish Museum in New York cashed in on Hayek’s movie and mounted a Kahlo exhibit in 2003. With her penchant for suffering, Frida seems as Jewish as she is Mexican.
Now Mexico’s right is filing a claim on Kahlo’s soul. Although the Calderonistas have done their damndest to whitewash her red roots, the shadow of the hammer and sickle hovers over Bellas Artes these days. President Calderon prefers to view Kahlo not as a political activist but as a heroic cripple who “overcame adversity”, sort of a charity Telethon idol. In his remarks at the centennial exhibit’s “private” inauguration, the President championed Frida as “an example of how we can overcome adversity so that Mexico can move forward” and warned the leftists marching outside “all that impedes the nation’s progress should be left behind.”
“Free Frida! Free Frida!” the Fridas out on the Bellas Artes esplanade responded, “If Frida was alive today, she would be out here in the street with us.”
JOHN ROSS is back in Mexico City hot on the trail of Brad Will’s killers and re-immersing himself in the real world. Write him at email@example.com.