Some years ago, when my husband and I were part of a longstanding small group, we assigned ourselves the homework of creating what we chose to call spiritual bucket lists (as in: before we kick the bucket). Things we must do and places we must go.
In my religious understanding as a humanist, that meant intentionally connecting with my most authentic and open self. At the very top was making pilgrimages to “old” holy spots for me: the awe inspiring places of my earliest years, Bryce Canyon in Utah, the Grand Tetons, Death Valley.
Paris, of course. A return to the artistic Montmartre of my early wandering twenties, with its ghosts of Lautrec and Picasso and Gertrude Stein.
And the actual homes or historical sites of women and girls who had been admirable, even transformative for me: the Louisa May Alcott house in Concord, Massachusetts, the site of Margaret Fuller’s tragic shipwreck off Fire Island in New York, Georgia O’Keeffe’s ghost ranch in New Mexico, and yes, Frida Kahlo’s blue house in Mexico City. Two early Unitarian feminist transcendentalists and two breakthrough women artists.
Over these past five years, I actually managed to cross quite a few pilgrimages off my must-do list, but it took until just three days ago for me to make it to Casa Azul. Too long a wait for a visit to what has become, in the words of one eco-cultural tour guide, as a major pilgrimage destination with major crowds.
Prior to finally making this pilgrimage a couple of years ago, I had not been in Mexico City since the mid-1960s when I was 16 years old, at a time when the house where Frida was born and died was not on the packaged tour list (the Museo Frida Kahlo had only been open a few years). Even as an art history minor at a major university, I was completely unaware of her as an artist, let alone the iconic figure she would become for me and so many thousands of women all over the world.
Not completely surprising given that while she was the first 20th century Mexican to have a painting permanently installed in the Louvre, she only had three solo exhibits — one in New York, one in Paris, and only one in Mexico, shortly before her death.
I not only was understandably oblivious to Frida in the more than 20 years when her life story and artistic work was essentially buried in the United States, I was clueless that she had resurfaced in both the Women’s Liberation and Chicano/Chicana Civil Rights movements of the l970s, when I was certainly engaged in the former, with the second wave white feminists seeing her as a model for enduring female suffering, focused on her role as victim, and Chicanas seeing in both her art and life a feminism encompassing strength, resilience, social justice, political activism, and national pride.
Or that she was claimed as one of their own by the lesbian and bisexual community in the 1980s.
I did not know that Frida had been given her first major posthumous exhibit in White Chapel Gallery in London in 1982. Nor did I know that Madonna, one of my contemporary pop culture idols of the 80s, with her fingerless gloves, denim and lace, her anti-Puritanism, her irreligiousness, sensuality, physicality, nonconformity, and yes, materialism. Who, upon finding Frida, spent millions of dollars snapping up quite a few of the 143 paintings that Frida completed, 55 of them self-portraits. Who self-penned an essay published in Harpers’ Bazaar in which she revealed that Frida Kahlo’s facial hair had helped her to survive her self-described weirdness, her friendlessness, and specifically her early years in New York City when instead of instant fame and fortune, she was greeted with armed robbery, rape, and apartment break-ins.
Madonna wrote that when she was playing the victim and wondering if it was all worth it, she pulled herself together and looked at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to her wall, black mustached, and that consoled her.
“Because she was an artist who didn’t care what people thought. She was daring. People gave her a hard time. Life gave her a hard time. If she could do it so could I.”
Madonna may well have been the original Frida fangirl (a term first coined in 1934 — meaning a girl or woman who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something) in no small way the instigator for the full tilt Fridamania of the 1990s. This communist/beat/punk/hippie carefully self–created woman, in every sense a radical, spawned what one writer has described as a female Che Guevera cottage industry or even cult (not for her art on canvas so much but for “the art of her being”).
Which included Frida look-a-like contests, operas, plays, novels, a cook book, and the nearly 500 page biography by art historian Hayden Herrera, and the English language movie Frida based on it which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.
Which is where I finally came into the world of Frida and began both a spiritual/intellectual/creative pilgrimage and an unapologetic feminist fandom of my own.
I went to see Frida as I would have every major movie, especially those with Oscar nominations (six, including best female actor for Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida). She didn’t win, losing to Halle Berry in Mobster’s Ball — the first black actress to win this award. I don’t remember being very invested in whether Frida won or lost (as a movie), but I do remember vividly the first scene with its glimpse of a recreated Casa Azul, the decaying Frida being lifted in her own four-poster bed through the courtyard, declaring she was not yet a corpse and would rebelliously attend her first and only solo gallery showing in Mexico, no matter what it took.
Her transformation from uniformed, Frenchified school girl to a norm-challenging, brilliantly colored reflection of indigenous native female culture and power.
The flashback bus accident scene — gold glitter flying in slow motion — in a moment changing her life forever from one, following a polio bout, that had a chance of physical robustness, to one bound up in debility.
A life all the while shot through with pain, yet self-possessed, perhaps even imperious, defiant.
Undoubtedly, I was most disturbed and captivated by this event in Frida’s young life that changed and challenged her forever. Because as a college student, I too on an ordinary day had a freak encounter with a moving vehicle — in my case, a car driven by an older man who hit me while I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for a bus in Berkeley, California. Like her, I had a smashed pelvis, broken back disc, shattered leg, and internal injuries that left me lying flat in a bed in the student health service for more than a month, and lame for quite a time afterwards.
Like Frida, as a result, I had several miscarriages. But unlike her, I was eventually able to have my three children. Unlike Frida, I had many years of reprieve from pain and preoccupation. But like her, I am becoming impaired again.
Upon its release, the movie’s director, Julie Taymor, was criticized for a perceived lack of emphasis on Frida as artist and political activist, responding that it was her narrative purpose instead to tell a story of joi de vivre, humor, bawdiness, focused on a sometimes loyal but never faithful “rocky romance” with fellow artist Diego Rivera that lasted over 30 years. To capture on screen a real human being who was more than an abused victim, this “ribbon wrapped around a bomb” who loved colors, flowers, who set a good table, a “wonderfully complicated woman.”
Over the next few years, I would pursue Frida on two tracks: one a critical aesthetic catch-up self-taught exploration of her actual body of work: the mostly small self and other portraits, and still life arrangements of native fruits and vegetables she painted, often bedridden.
In 2005, I first saw a Frida solo exhibit in London at the Tate Modern — filling its austere walls with bejeweled Mexican colors, disturbing images and livid blood — in Atlanta, at an exhibit which focused on politics and passion in her painting and in Detroit, where her unflinching work was hung for the first time alongside Diego Rivera’s taunting murals. I was captivated and captured.
We even made a stop-over in New York on the way to a trip to Dublin in order to take a train up to the Bronx to see the Botanical Gardens’ installation of her famous Casa Azul post-revolutionary Mexican suburban domestic garden, faithfully replanted. There was the weekend flight to Boston last fall to see the first painting Frida ever sold, Dos Mujeres, at the Fine Arts Museum there, the only painting by her they own.
The adoration of, and perhaps even obsession I once had for Georgia O’Keeffe and her spare, sensual landscapes, which had made it imperative that we attend the opening day of her museum in Santa Fe some years back, was in many ways transferred to this other modern female painter, so different in presentation, both personal and artistic.
And then the fandom, fan girl track, which ironically got its start after I found a Oaxacan red wood Frida shrine in a world arts store in my Georgia town: a bejeweled figure with a glittered purple headdress and bright red lipstick surrounded by cloth roses and beads. This was at a time when UU ministers were pretty much expected to have personal altars in our offices — laughing Buddhas, shells, feathers, East Indian candles, and of course a flaming chalice, mine one of those given to Coming of Age Youth.
The moment I placed that eye-popping Frida shrine next to my Israeli menorah, I was hooked on adding other finds: jewelry boxes, black and white postcards of her and Diego, a compact, sticky notes, a paper doll set. Our home became an extension of this whimsical Frida reverence, with portraits of her found on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, commissioned from a female artist in Houston, a colored pencil likeness bought for ten dollars from a 10-year-old girl. My body too: a large tattoo on my right calf, too many pierced earrings now to count, high end necklaces from national juried craft shows. Refrigerator magnets (lined up frowning on the door) and stickers and coloring books and so much more.
Some of it I purchased, much of it gifted from family and friends in the flesh and dozens on my Facebook page, some of whom sent Frida socks.
I have yet to get branded leggings or umbrella or a coffee mug asking, What Would Frida Do?
Completing myself in part by consuming her.
A Catholic friend of mine is convinced that we all need saints and that I am canonizing Frida for myself — as an object of veneration. Which is the opposite of religious feminism for me, wherein each one of us embody the divine, seeing it and owning it in each other, as connected kindred spirits.
That is what Frida has become for me, across the years, and despite our outward differences: She’s a chain smoking, hard-drinking, non-Western, physically handicapped, Stalinist bisexual woman of color kindred spirit.
But in whom I have found and with whom I share the need to be part of and be engaged in, not conventional Western white women’s culture, but a marginalized culture (hers a mosaic of mestizo and Jewish). A kindred spirit with whom I have found and with whom I share a showy insistence on material self-expression: through our costumed clothing, magenta lipstick, silver, and beads.
With whom I have found and with whom I share an anti-minimalist love of collecting. What one curator has described for both Frida and Diego as a living cabinet of curiosities, thousands of objects: sculptures, folk art, devotional paintings, photographs, plants, and in Frida’s case jewelry and hundreds of dresses. I love it that when their friends traveled, Kahlo asked that they bring her back “little things.” The same little things, the genuine treasures and trinkets that overfilled my parents’ homes, and might well devour our own.
Her lusty tendency to curse in several different languages, her plain rough straight talk.
And yes, her courage, beyond her much vaulted endurance of constant pain, as Selma Hayek has observed to be unique; her courage to be different. Her dogged and brave artistic creativity, as she publicly shared and exposed her own self exploration. What one writer has described as agonized poetry on canvas. Acid and fragile at the same time.
And perhaps most of all, her flaws and contradictions, when the persona, the myths, both created by others and by her most of all, unraveled. Sometimes quite deliberately.
The free spirit, the ferocious intellectual, the gender bender who nonetheless hitched her star (or at least in part) to a larger-than-life man for much of her adult life.
The self-described naïve and amateur artist who insisted modestly that she only painted for herself, who believed in art for art’s sake and would not like to become famous, after a time fretted about her lack of recognition — especially in her home country — and set higher and higher price tags on her work, both for ego’s sake and to offset the mounting debt generated by her voracious consumption of stuff, art supplies, medical bills and the bottle of cognac she downed each day.
The long suffering but persistent Frida who has often been liltingly quoted as convinced that “at the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can” is the same Frida who pursued the risky and unnecessary surgeries that may have worsened her medical condition, who became addicted to, strung out on painkillers, who made several suicide attempts before her young, young death at 47 — believed by many to have been from a deliberate Demerol overdose because she could no longer endure the body that had trapped and tortured her for so long.
Inconsistent and flawed. Labeled in her own lifetime, often by other women, as a self-indulgent hussy obsessively married to a patriarchal pig — painter of oil selfies, inconsequential. A judgement that continues in some quarters today.
A bad influence.
A bad feminist.
As am I.
Novelist and essayist Roxanne Gay, in her book Bad Feminist, reminds us that feminism is flawed, imperfect, “because it is a movement powered by people and people are flawed.” She observes that “we put feminist figureheads upon a feminist pedestal and when they do something we do not like, we knock them right off.”
Having once rejected any sort of feminist label, she has now reclaimed it, saying that she instead keeps her feminism simple — freedom and equality as it is understood country by country — not one true feminism that dominates all womankind. And practiced by bad feminists: bizarre, flawed, human, a mess.
Flawed and inconsistent and human, Frida as feminist is still alive and thriving, as one younger woman notes, by continuing to teach us to recognize our importance, to follow our passions — and to not conform.
Twenty-first century feminists who recognize and appreciate her complexities: how Frida never called herself a feminist, had a puzzling marriage, but who set an example, as Dutch art historian Emma Vermulan says, “by daring to express herself without discrimination.”
The Fridas of today include pop culture icons — notably Beyoncé who dresses up as Frida, floral headdress and big skirts, for Halloween; then sings about how women cannot be contained and stands up for transgendered persons.
Because we need strong women in pop culture, as one reporter said.
The Fridas of today are also organizers of marchers and founders of new inclusive gender justice movements, young lawyers who teach high school students about participatory democracy and develop rapid response training for lawyers who will represent immigrants who are detained or women denied healthcare access.
They are mothers of young children who carve out the time to hold respectful multi-generational human conversations and reach out to Syrian refugees.
May they embrace their bad feminism.
May they be kindred spirits for one another.
In Frida’s name.