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Sixty-four years after her death, the Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has become so iconic that her very likeness is now a counter-culture symbol, her face a kind of human ‘emoji’ representing (s)heroism as well as the ideologies of feminism, communism, nationalism, self-reinvention and indomitable nonconformity. A true individual, in many ways Kahlo was hard to pigeonhole. “They thought that I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t,” Kahlo said. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

It’s safe to say that the artist, who was also disabled, bisexual and politically outspoken, is now more famous for what she represents than any of her paintings. Crippled in a collision between a bus and a tram when she was 18, Kahlo’s story of triumph over adversity so resonates with 21st-century audiences that her fame seems only to gather momentum. She’s regularly lauded in the media for being a feminist and sexual revolutionary, her life has been forensically examined by a number of biographers and she’s frequently portrayed on big and small screens, from the 2002 biopic Frida, to Disney-Pixar’s 2017 children’s animation, Coco. Controversially, this year, Kahlo was even turned into an 11.5 inch-tall articulated Barbie doll.

The Kahlo doll is part of Mattel’s new Barbie: Inspiring Women series, a collection Mattel says is designed to teach young girls about women “who helped pave the way for them.” African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson and Amelia Earhart, who was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, are the other female role models depicted in doll form for the series, so far. Kahlo’s doll, however, has been slammed by critics for not accurately portraying the artist’s unfettered beauty, her disabilities or even the traditional Mexican dresses that she so proudly wore. Kahlo’s great-niece, Mara de Anda Romeo, has called for Mattel to redesign the doll, and the family recently won a temporary injunction against the toymaker in a dispute about the rights to use Kahlo’s image.


With her penchant for self-portraits, was Kahlo just the original selfie queen or is she deserving of her status as an icon and Barbie doll? The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) will be setting the record straight with its new exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, from June 16 to November 4. “This show will offer a powerful insight into how Frida Kahlo constructed her own identity,” says Claire Wilcox, senior curator of fashion at the V&A. It also provides rare access to an archive of 200 Kahlo artefacts – from paintings and personal photographs, to the artist’s make-up, clothes and jewellery – loaned by the Frida Kahlo Museum and never before seen outside Mexico. Known locally as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the Kahlo Museum occupies the house where the artist was born, lived and died.

To set the scene, the V&A has recreated her La Casa Azul home, in which visitors can explore Kahlo’s childhood, artworks, her circle of friends that included Russian revolutionary and communist leader Leon Trotsky, and her marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera. “There have been two great accidents in my life,” Kahlo once said. “One was the trolley [tram], and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” The exhibition offers “a very personal experience” according to the show’s co-curator Circe Henestrosa, who recently collaborated with Japanese photographer Miyako Ishiuchi on the book documenting Kahlo’s belongings and personal attire, entitled Frida by Ishiuchi. Among its trove of treasures are Kahlo’s orthopaedic leather and plaster corsets – necessary for medical reasons following her accident and multiple corrective surgeries – which the artist hand-decorated into objects of unusual beauty. “She included them in her art and in the construction of her style,” says Henestrosa, “almost as a second skin.”

When asked what three exhibits they are most excited to be putting on display, the curators agree on Kahlo’s eyebrow pencil, an artificial leg [Kahlo had the limb amputated in 1953] and some intimate film footage. “My favourite object is probably her prosthetic leg,” says Henestrosa. To disguise it, she says, Kahlo “had boots made from luxurious red leather that was beautifully decorated with bows and pieces of silk embroidered with Chinese dragon motifs and little bells. She turned her prosthetic leg into an avant-garde object.” Henestrosa points out that this was some 45 years ahead of the 1998 fashion show in which Alexander McQueen sent the American Paralympian athlete and model Aimee Mullins down the catwalk wearing a pair of prosthetic legs made from decorative carved wood. “Clothes became part of Kahlo’s armour, to deflect, conceal and distract from her injuries,” says Wilcox. “She did not want to be regarded as anything other than a strong, independent woman. She did not allow her injuries to define her.”“Another important item,” Wilcox continues, “is the colour footage of Kahlo in the Casa Azul taken by her lover Nickolas Muray. She’s caught in an unguarded moment, in full Technicolor amid the blossoms in her garden, braiding her long dark hair, looking commanding, graceful and entirely self-possessed.”


Kahlo also used her striking appearance as a “political statement,” Wilcox adds, crafting her look to reflect her allegiance to Mexican culture and “her own mestizo (mixed-race) identity.” On display in the show, you’ll find some of the traditional garments worn by Kahlo, such as a rebozo (a Mexican shawl). “The way Kahlo presented herself was quite different to accepted notions of fashion and beauty of the time,” insists Henestrosa. “Her independent self-styling was based on a considered statement about her Mexican identity, politics and her understanding of timeless notions of beauty.”
It’s sad then that Mattel’s Kahlo doll looks so much like any other Barbie and is missing Kahlo’s most notable features – the hair above her lip and her trademark unibrow. Salma Hayek, who portrayed Kahlo in the film Frida, was among those to voice their disapproval. “How could they turn her into a Barbie?” she said in an Instagram post. “#fridakahlo never tried to be or look like anyone else. She celebrated her uniqueness.”Wilcox says: “Not only did she embrace her facial hair, carefully painting it into her self-portraits, but she also emphasised her heavy brows. They became Kahlo’s defining feature and a form of shorthand for self.”

There’s some irony in the fact that the Kahlo doll’s plucked, Westernised beauty and its skinny, able-bodied form represent the very things that Kahlo kicked against during her life, from capitalism to society’s limiting and excluding notions of classical beauty. Though, from the sentiments she left behind, it’s not hard to imagine what Kahlo would think about the whole doll debacle. “I don’t give a s**t what the world thinks,” she said. “I was born a bi**h, I was born a painter, I was born f****d. But I was happy in my way. You did not understand what I am. I am love. I am pleasure, I am essence, I am an idiot, I am an alcoholic, I am tenacious. I am; simply I am.”

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