Visible Women

What it’s like to curate the UK’s biggest Frida Kahlo exhibition in a generation

Posted by
Moya Crockett
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who have impressive accomplishments and to celebrate their success. This week, we’re talking to Circe Henestrosa, the co-curator of the V&A’s new exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.

Circe Henestrosa grew up hearing stories of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Her father’s family came from Tehuantepec, in the south-east of Mexico, and her great-uncle Andres and great-aunt Alfa moved in the same circles as the famed intellectual couple in the Thirties and Forties. Henestrosa family legend even maintained that it was Alfa who gave Kahlo her first Tehuana dress – the full-skirted, embroidered gowns worn by indigenous women in Tehuantepec – which Kahlo later adopted as her trademark.

Henestrosa doesn’t know for sure whether that is true, but as a child the stories left her with an intimate sense of connection to Mexico’s most famous artist. It’s this sense of familiarity that she hopes to capture in her new exhibition at the V&A, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, which she’s spent the last three years curating with Claire Wilcox.

Rather than focusing solely on Kahlo’s paintings, the exhibition uses Kahlo’s clothes and belongings as a way of expanding visitors’ understanding of the artist as a person. On display are more than 200 items, including Kahlo’s Tehuana gowns, Guatemalan coats, half-empty cosmetics tubes and compacts, jewellery, medicine bottles, silk skirts, cotton huipils and her prosthetic leg (worn after her leg had to be amputated as a result of gangrene in 1953).

“I love working with female wardrobes,” says Henestrosa. “I think it’s a way of contextualising the wearer, because a woman’s wardrobe helps you understand her as a person.”

Describing her process for curating this exhibition, she explains: “You place the person at the centre, and then through her personal objects you start understanding how she wore those objects or surviving garments. How did she relate to her personal belongings? What kind of personality did she have? It’s a different way to present fashion, and it’s very intimate and intricate.”

Frida Kahlo’s prosthetic leg, currently on display at the V&A

Despite helming the summer’s biggest, splashiest exhibition, Henestrosa hasn’t always been a curator. She got her start working for the British Council in Mexico, working with museums and contemporary artists as an artistic programmer and project manager. In 2009, she completed an MA in Fashion Curation at the London College of Fashion, a change of career path she says was actually inspired by a trip to the V&A more than a decade ago.

“It was called Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back, curated by Judith Clarke,” she says. “I saw that show, and I was like –” she gasps – “who is this curator? This is what I want to do – I want to be like this woman!”

As part of her MA thesis, Henestrosa devised an exhibition, titled Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo, which was shown at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City in 2012. Otherwise known as the Blue House, the museum is where Kahlo was born, spent much of her life and died in 1954. 

It is also where a trove of Kahlo’s belongings was discovered in 2004, having been sealed away by Rivera more than half a century previously. 

“The way Frida portrayed herself in her artworks, including what she was wearing, was very deliberate and meaningful.” Frida Kahlo on a bench, 1938, photo by Nickolas Muray

Appearances Can Be Deceiving was a roaring success, and the positive response inspired Henestrosa to see if there was an appetite for a Kahlo exhibition in London, which she refers to as her “second home” (her husband, who she met while working for the British Council, is a Londoner). In 2015 she met with Linda Lloyd Jones, then the head of exhibitions and loans at the V&A, who gave the idea the thumbs up. 

The intervening years have been spent trying to obtain as many of Kahlo’s self-portraits and possessions as possible, from the Blue House as well as from other museums and private collections around the world. Several of the paintings and items currently on display at the V&A, including many of the objects discovered in the Blue House in 2004, have never been seen in the UK before.

“You have to start planning five to four years in advance if you want to do anything relating to Kahlo,” Henestrosa explains. This is largely because of the administrative legwork required to insure more than 200 extremely valuable artworks and objects and get them to London. She has, she says, been delighted by the response to the exhibition.

“It has been the most amazing experience working at the V&A – they have a great team of different backgrounds, different ages, a lot of women, and it’s been really fun,” she says. “The audiences are super enthusiastic too – it’s very positive. I’m just really happy to be able to convey Kahlo’s messages and bring this archive here.”

Kahlo’s make-up, on display at the V&A

Henestrosa is passionate about the power of fashion as a storytelling medium, and sees it as particularly important given the many ways that Kahlo’s story – one of disability, heartbreak and anti-colonial and communist politics, to name just a few – has been appropriated and defanged since her death. And while some would argue that Kahlo’s fashion was the least important thing about her, Henestrosa sees it as a vital pathway to understanding the woman behind the myth.

“Clothes tell a story, and as curators we have a huge responsibility to tell stories accurately,” she says. 

“A lot of Frida’s message has been lost, from how she grappled with her mixed heritage in the context of Mexico’s colonial legacy to her political beliefs. But she addressed all of these things through her art – and who do we see more than anyone else in her art? Herself. She painted self-portraits, and the way she portrayed herself in those artworks, including what she was wearing, was very deliberate and meaningful.

“People will always want to appropriate someone like Kahlo,” Henestrosa continues. “There will always be an obsession with owning a little bit of her. But I hope that through this exhibition, people will move away from appropriation, and nearer to Kahlo the person.”

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, is at the V&A from 16 June - 4 November 2018. 

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives / © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives