Like Frida Kahlo, Prof Gaby Franger uses beauty – in this case, photography – to captivate and educate us about the artist’s legacy in feminism and visual culture. From headscarves to Frida paraphernalia, Franger explains to us the significance of the artefacts we call clothes and accessories, and how the female identity is crafted around them.
You have extensive experience curating international exhibitions on women’s culture. You’re also a board member of the International Association of Women’s Museums (IAWM). How did you get into social sciences and material culture studies?
Studying social sciences for me was actually a “natural” consequence of my political activities as a student, my fascination for material culture studies began with an annoyance with the political and social reception of and discrimination against headscarf-wearing Turkish women in the 1980s in Germany.
This led to a publication and a travelling exhibition on the cultural history of the headscarf (with Meral Akkent: Nur ein Stückchen Stoff. Das Kopftuch in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Frankfurt Dagyeli Verlag, 1987, translation: Just a Piece of Fabric. The Headscarf in History and Present). And that turned out to be a lot of fun.
Frida the revolutionary
You’re a Frida Kahlo fan, like many of us, and also a Frida Kahlo scholar. At what point did you realise that the materials you gathered on Frida were enough to form a book? Was it easy or hard to pitch the idea of a Frida book to the publisher?
Am I a Frida Fan? I actually encountered her relatively late, via detour: my interest in the history of her father, an outstanding photographer (with Rainer Huhle: Fridas Vater. Der Photograph Guillermo Kahlo, München, Schirmer Verlag, 2005), and through first Frida-related trinkets I found on Mexican markets. I first used some of these objects to loosen up a speech I gave about her father on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2007.
It was not really difficult to convince the publisher Gita Wolf of the idea. We both had at various times, in very different ways, been working on questions of the recognition of folk art and its relation with “elite” art. So when I first showed Gita my Frida treasures, she was all in on the project. The path until the realisation of the project was then longer and more laborious than we both had expected, but it was worth it. Soon, there will be the first exhibition.
There are so many lovely images of Frida in this book. Were there many more that you had to edit out – or do you use the majority of the images you gathered?
With time, I became more and more picky with the objects I encountered. And even after the book went to print, I still cannot escape Frida folk art. So I do have a number of additional objects and images, but the prettiest and most remarkable ones are collected in the publication.
“Of course Frida had faith in romance and she – like other leftist intellectuals and artists of her time – admired the matriarchal power of the Tehuana women.”
We’re reading Technologies of Romance (Part I & II), written by the art critic Paul O’Kane. He proposes that revolutionary thoughts are rooted in romance. The Left, he insists, must have more faith in this (just as the Victorian engineers and designers had faith in romance and technology). Was Frida working within a similar frame with her art and appropriation of the Tehuana costumes?
Of course Frida had faith in romance and she – like other leftist intellectuals and artists of her time – admired the matriarchal power of the Tehuana women. The adoption of their clothing – she did not copy it, but transcended it artfully – became part of her own performance of artwork.
Your book reminds me of Taussig’s work on Mimesis and Alterity. He looked at the Cuna tribe in Latin America who reproduces images of culturally dominant people (my own term) in native arts previously reserved for depicting their gods. Is this also the case with the reproduction of Frida artefacts? Is she elevated to the status of ‘saint’ with these material tributes? Or is it simply fandom?
Maybe it is everything, fandom, reverence as a saint, a revolutionary, the suffering Madonna, the femme fatale, and a marvelous but also questioned artist. I would not compare this with Taussig’s discourse on the Cuna. Mexican traditional folk art since the 17th century is a very special mixture of pre-Columbian, Spanish, Arabic and African art, “discovered“ by the left intellectual and artist avant-garde since the late 19th century – and again, the design vocabulary is reciprocally stimulating.
Similar processes happened in Ayacucho, Peru, when José Maria Arguedas promoted folk art as true art, as Diego Rivera did before. Concerning the feminist discourses on art and folk art, I hold the work of the Mexican feminist philosopher Eli Bartra in very high esteem (e.g. Desnudo y arte, Bogotá, Desde Abajo, 2018; Women in Mexican Folk Art. Of Promises, Betrayals, Monsters and Celebrities, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2011; Crafting Gender. Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean, Durham / London, Duke University Press 2003. (Ed).)
Frida is a feminist icon. Her way of fame, however, was also rooted in “the (male) gaze”. In her paintings and in Nikolas Muray’s photographs of her, she is being looked at. She gets her point across that way. Is it ever possible for feminists to exert our influence and make a point without having to rely on our physicality or other passive means of signalling such as fashion?
No – why should we?
In this age of #Metoo, how do we look at Frida? And how do we use her as an inspiration?
What I want to show with my book is that there are so many facets in her life that are inspiring: her art, the way she overcame her suffering, her passion, her tenderness, her intellect, her devotion to folk artists and their art, her unconventional love life, or her romantic vision of revolution.
Frida the myth
On page 131, one of the Aguilar sisters who produce the Fridita figurines talked about recreating a clay version of Frida – with a baby. Quite a poetic license. Do you observe similar things in different countries where the history of Frida becomes a ‘story’ of its own?
Maybe another example would be Frida’s fusion with the Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevara. Che and Frida coalesce into the icon Fridache (see book cover Edward J, Mc. Caughan: Reinventando la Revolución. La renovación del discurso de la izquierda en Cuba y México; México, Siglo 21, 2000).
Frida the merchandise
You mention the commercialisation of the Frida image is “less about echoing Frida’s ethics… more about cashing in on a strong style icon” (page 44). But can we do without commercialisation to keep her spirit alive?
Perhaps not, but do we really need evening dresses styled after her corset?
Frida used recycled materials from second-hand markets to create her famous Tehuana image. Is there a scope of expanding on this topic?
I don’t know, but maybe there is?
What is the most recent book you have read?
Daniel de Roulet: Zehn unbekümmerte Anarchistinnen, Zürich 2017, Limmat Verlag
Print, PDF or ebook?
About Gaby Franger
* Main image – Creative Direction: Zarina Holmes, GLUE Studio. Illustrator: Anita Ponne. After Nikolas Murray.