There were earlier ones. Women who shaped my feminism, women who shaped me in my feminism(s). But, it is Frida Kahlo who remains a consistent swimmer through my own journey as a feminist. Perhaps her omnipresence is due simply to her multiple apparitions: artist, activist, writer, thinker, lover, maker. Her genius permeates so many different modalities of imagination that as a young woman, stretching into my own creativity, I continually bumped into Frida’s work, my love for her evolving with my own life.
Frida Kahlo represents to me the complications of humanity, the imperfections of feminism and the guttural commitment to continue despite the flaws. I found Frida Kahlo while in university researching ideas around motherhood, body autonomy and collaged narratives. There was Frida’s work: stunning, shocking, provoking, laid bare. Her work pulled me into her life story during the same year that the Hollywood biopic was released, Frida was suddenly everywhere.
Her visual work around reproduction, gender performativity and “the body” was the perfect mate for the theory informed my academic relationship with feminism, notably Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and countless papers by Judith Butler.
It was Frida Kahlo that reassured me when I was told to “relax,” or “speak softly.” Her work wasn’t quiet, she didn’t whisper her way through life; even her vulnerability reached me as a profound roar. She pushed boundaries and didn’t apologize for her existence. Not as a woman with a disability, not as a woman who lived outside heteronormative expectations, not as an experimental artist.
Intersection is Frida Kahlo. Her existence underlines the essential need for intersectionality. We can’t talk about reproductive rights without talking about disability. We can’t talk about revolutions without talking about privilege. We can’t talk about race without talking about gender. As I dove deeper into the journals, images and letters of Kahlo, my own understanding of intersectionality developed.
The first time I was able to see an exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s work I was living as an ex-pat in Belgium. Next to my breasts, I carried my newborn son around the Beaux Art gallery in downtown Brussels and contemplated Frida Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital (1932). My body gave over to the new understanding I had of Kahlo. There in that exhibition room I felt a profound sadness for Kahlo, triggering tears and a desperation to apologize to this woman for her loss.
Half a decade later just on the cusp of Toronto’s Chinatown, I again met Kahlo. Now more politicized in my feminism, my gaze met her work through different optics. Her relationships outside of her marriage presented as much about her loss as her defiance. Her conversations about the making of the self as much about grief as reclamation.
Frida gave me images, a map to follow, a plan. Rough sketches that I added my own indelible impression and portage to. She has been my mother, though, I am certainly not the child she imagined. But, she’s given me a life in theory and palpable acts. Such a mother. I’ve recently added her image to my body in the form of the Matryoshka doll. The one inside the many. The layers.
Frida. Thank you.
Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a series of articles where contributors discuss their early feminist role models or figures who influenced their early feminism. Check back over the following weeks for articles on our various role models, from Captain Janeway to Coco Chanel.
1932 photo of Frida Kahlo with Malu Block and Diego Rivera: “Block Kahlo Rivera 1932” by Carl Van Vechten – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c03971.Restoration by trialsanderrors: Frida Kahlo de Rivera, Diego Rivera and Malú Block by Carl Van Vechten, 1932. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.