ON THE REVOLUTION OF GENDER: FRIDA KAHLO
November 16, 2021 marks the day on which the most valuable Latin American work of art has been sold for $34.9 million. The artist behind this piece of art is the Mexican-born Frida Kahlo, known for her intense emotions, tragic life, and most of all for being a key figure of feminism, exposing herself as what we nowadays call a non-binary person.
She was born in 1907, just a few years before the Mexican Revolution started, and therefore she used to call herself “the daughter of the war”. Already from an early age, Kahlo faced painful physical conditions that would later be depicted in her paintings. She also contracted polio at the age of six, leaving her with a permanent limp, and at the age of 18 she got into a bus accident that led to permanent physical damage, forcing her to undergo multiple surgeries throughout her life and eventually leading to an early death at the age of 47.
Not being in enough pain, Kahlo was also the life partner of the famous artist Diego Rivera: a relationship filled with misadventures, infidelities and a lot of emotional suffering. Moreover, she experienced several miscarriages that took from her the opportunity of ever becoming a mom.
Kahlo’s life, mostly being characterized by suffering, was rather the catalyst for her successful career as an artist and recognition as a feminist. Kahlo used art as a way of channeling and transforming all of her pain and life experiences into a more understandable visual representation, by painting what in her eyes life really was. In some way, only through art she managed to express the pain that could not be put into words.
Now the big question is: how did she become a noninstitutional feminist through art?
Let’s begin by understanding the concept of “noninstitutional feminism”: it is any political activity that does not take place directly within a formal institution. Kahlo’s manifestation of feminism, for example, undoubtedly happened through her art pieces.
Her paintings did not belong to any specific art movement, but they were rather symbolic to her inner experience of life, which drove her into including many surrealist objects in her drawings.
Keeping this in mind, we can then understand that Kahlo, in the act of sharing her life through art, was constantly making feminists statements. Beginning with her sexuality, she was an openly bisexual woman in a time and place where this was not acceptable, yet she manifested her sexual orientation shamelessly, making the statement that she was who she was, regardless of whether it would be approved or not. Then, looking into her most recurring art pieces, meaning her self-portraits, she had all the power to paint herself without what “society” considered imperfections. However, she chose not to do so: she was simply painting herself as she truly was, with all the features that showed both her feminine and masculine side. In other words, she showed herself as an individual, with body and facial hair, flowered dresses, all the elements that were part of her experience in this world. No classifications, just a reflection of what being human is. This form of painting is what later made her understand that she did not believe in the common social constructs on gender. Her body was biologically identifiable as female, but she defined herself as an individual, not woman or man, but simply a human being.
Through the consistency of these paintings, where she shared her experience as a human being, she became one of the first feminists to approach what is now known as “the gender revolution”, meaning the fight against the roles society has assigned to a construct of genders (female and male, based on our sex) that oppress the true nature of each being by dictating how they should feel, behave, and dress. She fully embraced the human experience and inspired others to do so, she showed the good and the bad of life, pain and suffering, love and happiness. Her art pieces were the medium through which Kahlo successfully expressed her nonconformity towards the gender norms in place, and she made her ideas on identity be heard if not understood by society.
All in all, Frida Kahlo’s work has passed the test of time. Against all odds, it has continued to marvel audiences across the globe. Even if it still is a topic of discussion and controversy, it is of great fascination for society, as demonstrated by the economic value of her pieces.
This then gives us food for thought on whether gender norms are part of our nature or simply rooted deep inside of us by society. Could it be that our inner human beings, once taken away from the social constructs, understand and accept that our humanity is the only true thing, whereas gender is subjective? An understanding Frida Kahlo has been able to express for humanity through her work.