Making Yourself Up

On the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A. It closed on Sunday, so it really was a last minute opportunity, but I happened to be in London for work so the Princess and I went together.

The exhibition is called ‘Making Her Self Up’. It is a carefully curated journey through Frida’s life from small child to artist, told through her everyday objects. These include her shoes, her clothes, jewellery, perfume bottles, boxes, corsets, crutches, letters … all discovered in a room in Casa Azul, that was sealed for 50 years after her death. As I went through the exhibition, I was amazed by how the ordinary, the everyday, was incorporated into the story of how Frida created her own self, her own story, and her art.

The objects are interspersed with photographs, and her self-portraits. Each object is used to add to the narrative of Frida-as-artist, Frida-as-woman, Frida-as-injured, Frida-as-Mexican.

The exhibition reminded me of Ian Hacking’s essay Making Up People: Clinical Classifications (you can read part of it for free online here). In the essay, Hacking talks about how people come to be classified through knowledge and research created by the sciences (broadly defined as those scientific disciplines concerned with the study of humans and humanity). Science brings certain types of people into existence, by creating the classifications that define us. For example: the obese, the anorexic, the mad. By making people up, we define the possibilities for what can be, whom people can become, and we narrow the options for being differently, being otherwise.

But what I was struck by in the exhibition of Frida Kahlo, was the role we play in making ourselves up – through the clothes and jewellery we wear, the objects we have, the photographs we keep. We create and co-create the stories of ourselves too. As much as society likes to tell us who we are, and who we can be, we also have a role to play in seeking out this definition. That age old question, who I am?, can be interpreted and read from the everyday minutia of our lives.

Frida Kahlo is a fantastic example of how this is done. In the exhibition it is possible to glean insight into her internal life. The clothes she chose, traditional embroidered Mexican skirts (enaguas), shirts (huipiles), and shawls (rebozos), speak to her strong link to Mexico’s cultures and her commitment to the nation. But her skirts also hid her body, damaged after a near-fatal accident at 18. Some pieces of her jewellery were ancient beads, unearthed in excavations, and made by Frida herself, linking her to ancient peoples and her sense of identity. Other paintings and objects spoke of tragedy in her life – paintings and drawings of herself suffering a miscarriage convey the emotional and physical turmoil she felt. The corsets and back braces she wore, some carefully decorated as artworks, were also amongst the collection.

Upon reflection, it is interesting to think about the objects and wares that define our own lives, and how they contribute to the stories we create about and around ourselves. If you were to lock the objects of your life in a bathroom for 50 years, what would you choose? And how might others interpret those stories about you?

Further references:

In Conversation: Perspectives on Frida Kahlo Available online.