Sunday, June 19, 2011

Miami Celebrates Frida Kahlo

Yes, it's that time of year for Fridamania, and I want to be sure my readers know about the Frida Kahlo Festival in Miami on June 24 and July 1.

Mark your calendars for two enticing evenings of cultural and culinary surprises at Cube/Kitchen Loft, 5101 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach. On June 24 at 7 pm, hear lecture on Frida Kahlo, "A Tormented Brush," presented by art historian Armando Droulers and then, at 8 pm, savor a dinner created by Chef Diego Texera based on Frida Kahlo's recipes, plus there will be live music. Cost is $69 per person. On July 1 at 8 pm, there will be more Mexican tastings created by Texera, with performances of music from the time of Frida Kahlo. Cost is also $69 per person. RSVP by calling 305-866-6900 or email For more info, see While you are there, you can also see an exhibit of photographs of Frida Kahlo by Leo Matiz, an artist I highlighted for my June Critic's Choice at (Surely there are other Frida-centric events happening in Miami. Readers can post more info about them by making comments on this blog entry.)

I'd also like to urge readers to check out this promising exhibit: "Annie Blazejack and Geddes Levenson: The Twelve Days of Painting" at Flagler Arts Space, 172 West Flagler St. It's up till the beginning of July. See

Here's another: videos by Maria Lino in "All About Water" at 6th Street Container, 1155 (rear) SW 6th Street, Little Havana. See For info about the closing reception, probably the best time to see Maria's videos, try contacting Director Maria Amores at or Chief Curator Adalberto Delgado at Or perhaps if they have a chance they can post that info in a comment on this blog entry.

I've been away from Miami for several weeks, visiting friends and family in the Midwest, especially in my hometown of Shelbyville, Illinois. I just love to go back and visit. It's quite beautiful in the summertime. I have so many wonderful friends there from my high school, and I can check up on my email on computers in the charming 1905 Andrew Carnegie public library, where I checked out tons of books when I was growing up.

Now there's a lake in this small town (pop. around 5,000, when everyone's at home, as my dad always says) built by the Army Corps of Engineers, but that was not completed until after I went to college. But in all those many years since I have left high school, the lake has been a considerable source of tourism and revenue for the area. See

So, now, in honor of Frida, here's my story about her from The Miami Herald, July 25, 2004.


This month marks the 50th anniversary of Frida Kahlo's death at age 47 in Mexico, a milestone that has ratcheted the country's highly charged cult of Fridamania--one of Mexico's best-known exports--into overdrive.

"Frida is all over Mexico," says South Florida artist Carlos Betancourt, who in May made his fourth visit to Kahlo's home, the Blue House, in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan. "Frida is Mexico."

Kahlo's face already has launched millions of reproductions on such low-brow items as cigarette holders and mouse pads. In Mexican markets, T-shirts printed with her haughty uni-browed visage share top billing with T-shirts celebrating national heroes like Pancho Villa. Her fame has extended so far around the globe that a website devoted to rock music in Korea reports the existence of a "bluesy" rock band in that country named "Frida Kahlo."

Now a handful of new exhibitions of Kahlo's art in Mexico and several books about her famously interconnected life and art debut this summer and fall. They show that five decades after her death--and more than two decades after Hayden Herrera's biography of the artist appeared, fueling her rapid rise to popularity in the multicultural mind-set of the 1980's--it's clear that Kahlo's art and life still make for a volatile mix, more popular than ever.

Although death did not become her as rapidly as it did for Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Kahlo has a brilliant second life ahead of her as an iconic cult heroine for years to come, it would seem. Yet some art historians versed in the ways of Latin American art don't think all the Frida hype does justice to her singular, and for many years unsung, artistic innovations.

"I think the sensational aspects of her physical suffering and her suffering over Diego Rivera has been exaggerated," says Carol Damian, art history professor at Florida International University.

Damian especially admires the way Kahlo revisited the 19th Century Mexican tradition of retablo paintings so common on household altars. These folk paintings on wood or tin give thanks for misfortunes averted with cursive text and intimate narratives.

Yet Kahlo embellished this convention with her own spectacularly morose and magical brand of surrealism. Think of an ironic painting like her "Self-Portraits with Cropped Hair," painted at a low point in her relationship with Diego Rivera. It is notable for its cursive text and homespun tableau, but also for its acid yellows, cross-dressing identity, and for the funereal, languishing swirls of sliced-off hair. It is not a picture of thanks.

"There's a lot of history in her painting," Damian says. "This idea of suffering was very Mexican. She's coming from a very rich background."

For some, the background remains nearly as vivid as the artist's celebrity.

"When you go to any market in Mexico and you see the folk art," recalls Betancourt, "and when you see the drama in these retablos [folkloric religious artworks] in the churches, you see Frida all over."


On the 50th anniversary of her death, drama of her celebrity is getting a controversial boost from a family member. Isolda Pinedo Kahlo, the artist's 75-year-old neice, has written one of the new books, Frida Intime (Intimate Frida), which has been jointly published in Colombia and Argentina. In it, Pinedo Kahlo contends that the famed muralist and philanderer Diego Rivera helped his pain-wracked, crippled and suicidal wife die shortly before dawn on July 13, 1954, after she'd lain for hours in a partly comatose state brought on by heavy doses of painkillers.

But Isolda's claim has been challenged by Rivera's grandson, Juan Colonel, the Mexican website reported earlier this month. And Isolda Kahlo also has been criticized for using this 50th anniversary to profit from her aunt's name. This July she has also launched "Frida S.A.," a line of sunglasses, necklaces, and pashmina shawls inspired by the artist's signature flair for folkloric fashion, priced at $100 and up.

Memories of Kahlo's death have also brought new liveliness to the Blue House, home to the Frida Kahlo Museum, which attracts some 300,000 visitors a year. The museum, filled with Frida's artworks and her fabulous collection of Mexican artifacts, is located in the legendary lapis lazuli-colored home where she grew up. It's also where she lived and loved, suffered and painted from the late 1930s until her death from pneumonia.

This past May the results of more than $100,000 worth of repairs and restoration work to the Blue House were unveiled, and the Frida Kahlo Museum opened one of the largest exhibits of her work ever, showcasing 46 paintings, many of them her fiercely iconic self-portraits that bristle with not only her powerful charisma but also with monkeys, blood-red ribbons and her treasured symbols of pre-Columbian Mexico.

Still, all the hype surrounding the familiar Frida facts of glamour and gore--she was a lifelong cripple after being impaled on an iron rod in a horrific trolley car accident, she was the miscarrying and bisexual wife of Diego Rivera, and she was a flamboyant stylist who adored native Mexican jewelry, artifacts, and costumes like Tehuana dresses--can make it harder to take into account the elaborate legacy she's left for several generations of younger artists.


One such younger artist who comes to mind is the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), subject of a solo show now at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and coming to the Miami Art Museum next year.

"Ana Mendieta was very impressed by Kahlo's work and always went to her home when she was in Mexico," says Latin American art historian and curator Julia P. Herzberg, who's based in New York and has written a catalog essay for the Mendieta exhibit.

"I would say probably that Mendieta was impacted by the way in which Frida Kahlo created narratives through her autobiography, how she used almost exclusively her self-image, which Mendieta did in a very different way. Mendieta didn't use her face, as Kahlo did--she used the silhouette of her body," adds Herzberg. "I'm not saying it was Frida who gave her that idea, but I think this is a legacy Frida left."

In the well-known photographs from her "Silueta Series," Mendieta left imprints of her body in earth and rock, often inspired by the ovoid fertility forms from the indigenous Taino peoples of Cuba.

Another Latin American artist whose work carries links to Kahlo's legacy is contemporary Cuban photographer Marta Maria Perez Bravo. Her black and white self-portraits often show a tableau in which her body is being transformed into a fetishized object evocative of Cuban history and Afro-Cuban rituals.

"All three artists are using the body to find their roots and identity," Damian says of Kahlo, Mendieta, and Perez Bravo. "All of them have an identity that directly connects them to the land."

"The idea of self-portraiture has a very long history," points out Museum of Contemporary Art director Bonnie Clearwater, who published a book in 1993 on Mendieta's photography and rock carvings in Cuba. "Think of Rembrandt and van Gogh, who used themselves as subjects. The distinction is that women are taking charge of their own bodies, rather than being the subject of a painting by a male artist."

But it's not too far-fetched to see traces of Kahlo's precedent-setting self-portraits resurfacing in a considerable spectrum of contemporary artists, both male and female, from photographer Cindy Sherman's cinematic personas in her famous series of self-portraits to Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura's posturing self-portraits inserted into his reproductions of famous paintings by European and North American artists such as Goya and Kahlo herself.


Among artists in South Florida, it's also possible to see Kahlo echoes lingering in a variety of work by both men and women. Damian says Kahlo's adaptation of retablos resurfaces in the paintings of Mexican-born artist Alekxey Sabido, a resident of the ArtCenter/South Florida. "He has a genuine sensitivity to the whole history of Mexican art," she says about Sabido's dedicatory altars to both the Virgin of Guadaloupe and to Kahlo.

Maritza Molina, a performance artist and photographer who's exhibited here at both The House and Leonard Tachmes Gallery, has made allusions to Ana Mendieta's "Siueta Series" in one of her own self-portraits.

Both Kahlo and Mendieta have long fascinated Betancourt. His large-scale photographs of himself are layered with hand-written text and lavished with imagery, from flowers to ashes, that convey a flamboyant sense of personal history and his own roots in Caribbean culture.

"There are so many artists that I think work indirectly inspired by Frida Kahlo," Betancourt says. "I love her cursive writing. This is someone telling her art story through herself and, of course, so am I. "

While so much of Frida's art and celebrity is entwined with the history of a life colored deeply by both passion and pain, the pain has led to a heritage that's passionately proactive, Herzberg says.

"It's clear that Frida gave a face to pain, to suffering, and she gave a face to death from her own vantage point, using her own body in portraits. I mean, when did we see miscarriage in art? So through a woman's body, albeit hers, I think she really took on and assumed a new identity.

"She asserted the role of female as agent, the body as agent. The notion that you can take on any identity opened up new ways of thinking about how you could portray your body, and what fictions you could assume," Herzberg says. "And that became a really key element for future artists."


  1. The Twelve days of painting is a show of 728 paintings produced by two artists over the course of 12 days. It's a staggering amount of work and a real treat to see. There are pictures online at hope that you all can make it.