Why does Frida Kahlo’s story still resonate with so many modern women?

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As the V&A opens its landmark exhibition, four Frida Kahlo fans tell us why they still love her so.

“Frida is an incredible feminist and a real fighter. Her story means a lot to me” 

Thomasina Miers, chef and co-founder of Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca

I knew something about Frida Kahlo from school, but I discovered her properly when I was living in Mexico for a year when I was 27. During that time, I visited the house Frida lived in with her husband Diego Rivera. It’s in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City and it’s this incredible colonial-style house, painted in vivid, typically Mexican colours. It also has an amazingly beautiful kitchen, full of terracotta pots.

Frida was an avid cook. I even have a book of her recipes, Frida’s Fiestas, written by her step-daughter Guadalupe Rivera Marin. It’s full of memories about the Blue House where Frida lived with Diego. Their house was always open, to friends and people who shared their interests. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky lived with them for a while. 

Mexico has a strong tradition of artists involving themselves with politics: Frida and Diego were very committed in their views and surrounded themselves with like-minded people. There’s a novel by Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna [2009], which describes Frida’s house and all the people in it.

Her story means a lot to me, particularly the pain she went through. She was in almost constant physical pain [after a bus crash as a teenager] and she went through a lot of mental pain too. Her marriage was tempestuous and she couldn’t have children.

I think Frida is an incredible feminist and a real fighter. I admire the fighters in this world. Life is a battle. In the last few weeks, the two terrible suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade show that even if it looks like you have everything to live for, life can be so hard. Waking up every day is a struggle for some people. I admire Frida for channelling all of her pain into her creative life. 

I started to love Mexican art while I was living there. There’s a fantastic visual culture in Mexico and the art scene is huge. It felt like there was a new exhibition to go to every night. One of my best friends worked in the art field, so she took me out with her all over Mexico City.

Frida was very proud of being Mexican and food, as well as art, is a huge part of the culture. The nearest European comparison is Italy. Food is so important. No one makes any business decisions except over food. No one has a celebration that doesn’t involve food. 

I went to a school with very strong feminist values and a lot of that translated as getting women out of the kitchen. I am very much a feminist, as was Frida, and I recognise and identify with her as a fellow cook. We mustn’t forget that without food, we die. We mustn’t forget to nourish our bodies and our souls. We should eat delicious food with the people we love, as Frida did. 

“Her life was a combination of joy and defiance”

Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli, authors of Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls (£17.99, Penguin)

Once upon a time, in a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City, there was a girl who lived in a blue house. Her name was Frida. From the outside, Frida’s blue house was a common stucco building, with bright blue walls, tall windows and green shutters. But past the entrance, a world of wonder awaited.

Tropical plants, fountains, a small pyramid decked with pre-Columbian idols, birds singing and, indoors, a big, heavy and dark wooden closet, inside which Frida and her little sister sang revolutionary songs at the top of their lungs. She was four years old and already ahead of her time.

When we started researching Frida Kahlo’s story, we couldn’t stop thinking about this image. A girl playing with her sister and bending rules at the same time. Much of her life can be described with that same combination of joy and defiance. Frida wanted to be an inextricable part of Mexico’s revolutionary renaissance and, through her paintings, she gave Mexico and herself a second life. 

She suffered lots of physical pain since she was a child, but she always painted herself as a hero: a woman capable of surviving and thriving on even the most hostile and desolated planet. In her self-portraits, she never looked pitiful. She stood with the dignity of a queen and with fire in her eyes.

As artists and activists living in a time of renaissance for women’s rights, we constantly look at Frida’s work and life as an inspiration for what we do. Her commitment to art in the face of all adversity is a constant reminder of the transformative power of imagination.

We write stories to inspire young women to be their own heroes and take their destiny in their own hands, whatever their conditions might be. Frida’s self-portraits are the most powerful testament of that willingness, of that strength, of that ethos.

“Frida is still relevant because she was a woman ahead of her time”

Circe Henestrosa, co-curator of the V&A’s Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up exhibition

Frida Kahlo’s image has been appropriated by many different groups over the years: by feminists, by designers, by artists, in popular culture. In the Eighties, a lot of art scholars depicted her as a suffering artist as a result of her physical disabilities, and many academics have argued she wore ethnic Mexican dress to please Diego. Neither of these assessments is the whole story. She did suffer, of course, but what gets forgotten is that she also loved to have fun – and she was very feminine. She had many lovers, adored perfume, make-up and accessories, as well as painting and drinking tequila. She was a complex woman, as we all are.

The Tehuana dress Kahlo adopted as her logo was deeply meaningful. There are many traditional dress styles in Mexico she could have chosen, but she picked one from Tehuantepec, a matriarchal society in the south-east of the country. It symbolises the power of women, as well as reflecting the post-revolutionary Mexican ideals of returning to indigenous culture.

My own relationship with Kahlo is a personal one. My father’s family is from Tehuantepec, and my great-uncle and great-aunt moved in the same circles as Kahlo and Rivera in the Thirties and Forties. It is even said my great-aunt Alfa gave Kahlo her first Tehuana dress. And today I wear the Tehuana dress myself. 

Kahlo is still relevant in 2018 because she was a woman ahead of her time. As a dark-skinned, disabled, Mexican, communist, bohemian, often contradictory, female artist, she crossed so many experiences. That intersectionality is so important today.

I’m not surprised our exhibition has proved so popular. Most of Kahlo’s works are self-portraits, which means we remember her today through her clothes and belongings. I also think we all share some aspect of Kahlo’s life, so when we look at her paintings we feel she is talking directly to us. You might be bisexual, a wife or a mistress; your partner might have cheated on you, you might be struggling with addiction, have disabilities, or be of mixed or indigenous heritage. Whatever your experience, there’s probably an element of Kahlo’s story you can relate to.

I hope people will leave the exhibition feeling like they’ve met Kahlo for the first time. And that girls will be inspired to be proud of who they are. Define your identity and celebrate what makes you different. That’s what Kahlo was about.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is at the V&A in London until 4 November; tickets £15.

Interviews by Anna Fielding and Moya Crockett

Images: Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives / Tara Fisher