The Business of Making Frida Up
Titled: Frida Kahlo - Making Her Self Up, the V&A’s summer sell-out exhibition curates Kahlo’s ‘hidden’ wardrobe and personal possessions that had been stored untouched in a sealed off section of the Casa Azul in Mexico for 50 years. Despite Kahlo’s work having a profound effect on my early politics, I won't be going to see this exhibition. I won't be going because the exhibition aggressively transforms Kahlo’s radical anti-colonial, anti-capitalist politics into an opportunity for White people to relate to her as an accessible, palatable and consumable European-beauty norm. Further, the fact that the V&A’s annual report 2017-18 anticipated the exhibition’s “great commercial success” justifies a critique of the ways cultural extraction and appropriation are normalized by capital.
Branding the exhibition – and by extension the artist – has been core to the V&A’s successful ticket sales. The communications strategy has not centred Kahlo and the politics of her work, but rather it has asserted the rights of the museum-goer to consume her most intimate possessions in ways that deracinate her Brownness, disabilities and anti-colonial struggles.
Objects that touched, framed, constricted and medicalised her body are organized in ways that remove a consciousness with the real while creating a fictionalised intimacy with and of her body. Numerous pale, light, smooth mannequins have been made to look like her by European manufacturers. Her black thick hair has been converted into moulded ivory plaits wrapping up her white head like a princess tiara. Her hairy face is sanded down to reveal smooth skin that is then celebrated for looking like a ‘Mexican Idol’. The mannequins have been dressed up in Kahlo’s clothing and organized as fashion tableaux. Frida is reincarnated as a multiplicity of White rich submissive women within a particular aesthetic ideal that celebrates consumption as narcissism.
Some of the mannequins stand in a stylized huddle. They are sedate: their clasped hands, hands to the side, and perfectly straight posture belie the artist’s struggles with and re-workings of her body, as well as the interrogation of her own Brownness and indigeniety that are used in her work to critique Whiteness and the hegemony of capital. Kahlo continuously reminds us of the real through her renderings of bodily elements: hearts, blood, arteries, tears, and bones are spilt, dissected and assimilated in her paintings that work against the surreal because they force an engagement with the materiality of affect.
The removal of Kahlo’s politics of the real from the curation of her wardrobe is not an oversight or inaccuracy on the part of the V&A. It is instead a conscious branding decision that has been made by the White, Eurocentric Executive Board of the V&A. Just as the Barbican's curation of Basquiat's work in 2017 minimized the radical, anti-racist, decolonizing politics of a Black artist, the V&A has managed Kahlo’s image in a way that her struggle with Whiteness and capital becomes an affirmation of it. The differences between these two exhibitions are gendered. Where the Black man's tryst with the art world's Whiteness was/is imagined as a pathology of drug-addiction and self-destructive mental health, the Brown woman is fetishized as sexual and exotic in ways that her consumption is patterned by the racist Orientalisation of her body.
When the real experience of being a Black or Brown woman is cut out from how we relate to Kahlo as a disabled, queer, political artist, what is left are fantasies of her body that are mediated and organized by dominant White capitalist beauty norms. We can see this in the way White women flirt with Frida on twitter, hoping to purchase Frida merch in the gift shop whilst revelling in her rebellious spirit. Here, rebellion or being a rebel is itself de-politicised in the consumption of Frida as fashion, because the difficult and exhausting act of civil disobedience is transmuted into a liberal politics that includes many individual acts of choice and choosing optimistically.
The V&A exhibition is certainly not the end-point of Frida’s consumption – it does not mark a peak or a unique pattern of growth in her market value. The exhibition is merely part of a broader branding strategy that has made her appropriation possible to a spectrum of liberal, conservative, anti-socialist women. These instances have recently ranged from the anti-immigration politician and Prime Minister, Theresa May (who wore a bracelet with Frida’s image during one of the most bizarre political speeches of her tenure) to the heroine of white hyper-capitalist beauty aesthetics, Barbie (Frida’s Barbie-ization has led to legal disputes on the grounds that she be re-designed, not withdrawn from circulation).
If anything, the V&A exhibition confirms the hard limits of mainstreaming anti-colonial and decolonizing politics. It also confirms that Black and Brown bodies are made to be productive for White capital, even in absentia. Lastly, the exhibition makes clear White capital’s refusal to engage in the politics of race, anti-colonialism and radical democracy while accumulating value under the guise of diversity.