Know your past live your future

Frida Kahlo by Jake Hall

Frida Kahlo by Jake Hall

Illustration by Patrick Church.

Jake Hall is a freelance writer on topics ranging from sex and queer history to politics. He’s studying for a PhD and working on a thesis which explores high fashion through the academic lens of queer theory.

Frida Kahlo was a courageous, resilient woman whose trademark singular eyebrow is as famous as her huge portfolio of self-portraits. Born in Mexico City in 1907, Kahlo’s life was inarguably traumatic; she lived her brief life in a state of almost constant illness, spending many years bed-bound. When she did eventually pass away, she died in her hometown at just 47 years old. The relentlessness of this suffering was encapsulated in her famous last note: “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return.”

I, like countless other teenagers worldwide, saw something unique when I first laid eyes on Kahlo’s work. It was stunning and technically brilliant, but painted into her steely gaze was a fusion of sadness and rebellion which struck a chord. She may not make the more conventional lists of ‘queer icons’ but she was – and still is – however, iconic in my eyes; subversive and intriguing, she was the complete antithesis of the other straight, white, male painters I had been taught were important.

Kahlo is normally discussed in the same breath as her husband Diego Rivera, a Mexican muralist two decades older than her. Their marriage was famously turbulent and seemingly open; both Kahlo and Rivera had several high-profile affairs, yet one rarely-discussed fact is that Kahlo was bisexual. Not only did she sleep with a handful of her husband’s lovers, she also romanced a series of female icons including artist Georgia O’Keefe and Josephine Baker. Kahlo also seemingly had a taste for controversial lovers – she was briefly arrested after being insinuated as a suspect in the murder investigation of Leon Trotsky, with whom she conducted a brief affair.

She may have been crippled by pain for most of her life, but Kahlo remained fearless and admirably open to sexual exploration in years which were hardly kind to queer communities worldwide. Critics described her as feminist, whereas André Breton – often cited as the founder of Surrealism – said that he saw her as a Surrealist. She rejected these labels, always reluctant to pigeonhole her work and her identity; a concept which, in and of itself, is inarguably queer. Stories are told of her commitment to her colourful national dress and her refusal to pluck the signature eyebrow still replicated at costume parties worldwide; she was undeniably different, yet she embraced her difference and made it the defining feature of her beauty.

More controversial still was her tendency to cross-dress. She wore three-piece suits in family photos to challenge the notion that women should be feminine – instead, she proved that women could be powerful and beautiful without having to conform to expected dress codes. Her hair was often worn swept back in order to emphasis her strong facial features which were frequently bare of make-up. These may all seem simple gestures; they are, in fact, hugely revolutionary. There was a definitive queerness in her refusal to compromise, whereas there’s a brilliance to be found in the fact that, despite her non-conformity, she’s still celebrated and discussed as an artistic legend even today.

It might seem strange that I – a white, gay male – found inspiration in the life and work of Frida Kahlo. In fact, she’s rarely acknowledged as a queer icon at all despite her reputation for subversion. One thing I did know from a young age – before I heard the glamorous stories of her female lovers and her cross-dressing – was that she was tantalisingly different. It was this difference that I could relate to as a queer anomaly in a working-class village dominated by suffocating ideals of masculinity. Despite working in an undeniable male-dominated industry, Kahlo fought for recognition and beautifully expressed her identity – and, more importantly, her sadness – through her art.

In the context of the whitewashed art history often depicted in galleries, museums and other huge institutions worldwide, Kahlo’s repeated reference to her own heritage meant that she was often pigeonholed as a ‘Mexican artist’, as if descriptor somehow offsets the universal appeal of her work.  Although she was born and eventually died in Mexico City, Kahlo spent much of her adult life living and travelling through America and Europe – her work was exhibited and adored by curators and fans worldwide.

It seems unfair to describe her as a Mexican artist, a female artist or even a queer artist – she spent her life toying with ideas of identity and rejecting the labels variously ascribed to her. Despite the traumas she endured, she remained loyal to art because it was her lifeline. She once famously said “I paint myself because I am often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” For queer youth worldwide struggling to explore and express their own identities, – especially in a society which often rejects them – this universal statement is enough to cement her status as an icon and inspiration in her own right.

Illustrator Patrick Church is a British multimedia artist. His paintings exaggerate the human form and these are also translated onto his distinctive pieces of wearable art in the form of clothing. Patrick has been featured in publications Vogue and Wonderland magazine and has collaborated with the likes of Hercules and Love Affair. 

Stuart Feather by Amelia Abraham

Stuart Feather by Amelia Abraham