Last weekend, I went to a Frida Kahlo exhibit at MUDEC (Museo delle Culture di Milano) in Milan. I was so taken by this collection that I felt compelled to write about it immediately before any of it escaped me.
Profound, emblematic, and iconic are how one could describe Frida Kahlo’s art. To me, her work represents the many facets of life and death, from fertility to loss, from love to betrayal, from ancestral pride to alienation. Her unique blend of the macabre and hopeful never ceases to amaze me, and I doubt it ever will.
There was one part of the collection that stayed with me long after we walked away and drove home to the downpour in Lugano. At the very end of the exhibit was a collection of photographs of personal items placed in Frida’s bathroom. These pieces were like the aftermath of an emotional hurricane, like a scrapbook for the wounded. Her crutches, her body straps, which supported her after many extensive surgeries, her hospital gown, her prosthetic leg: these are all remnants of a struggling Frida. Almost instantly, I was reminded of my own wartime relics. I’ve also kept my first prosthetic arm, my first wheelchair, and might even still have my first medical bracelet. Why did I choose to keep these things?
I guess, like Frida, to me they represent a journey: a visceral embrace of a moment in our lives when these objects, these sad contraptions, were all we had. They became our sole companions, the only true constant in an otherwise unpredictable swarm. The part of us that scowls at their presence is the very same part that knows they make life possible. And while we wish we didn’t have them, we know they make us better. I’m sure Frida would agree they become our tired, but lifelong friends – amigos del alma, friends of the soul.
While looking up at the photograph of Frida’s hospital gown, I was reminded of a recent trip to the hospital. Not too long ago, I had a treatment done as an outpatient, and as I walked into my spacious hospital room I couldn’t help but giggle at the sight of the ever too familiar medical garb. It’s a funny thing, really, how something can evoke a feeling of safety and care, all while simultaneously creating a cloud of uncertainty. Not many things in life can do that.
With a light draft grazing my backside, I tied the print gown behind me and relaxed against the plumpness of my pillows, waiting to start the procedure. I thought about the many hospital gowns I’ve seen over the years, and came to the sobering realization that I probably still had quite a few to see in this lifetime. Did Frida have that moment of reflection too? How far did she get before she tapped into that reality? Like Frida, I haven’t let these setbacks get the best of me, but those moments – while far and few in between – can still be quite numbing. You can imagine the depth of these thoughts for Frida, a woman that experienced over 30 surgeries, several miscarriages, and a leg amputation. Yet her spirit remained intact in her work.
As I stood in front of these photographs, holding back the tears and knot in my throat, I smiled. THIS is exactly what Frida’s work is meant to do. Her provocative nature doesn’t just tell the story of a woman because of her tragedies and flaws; it tells the story of a woman despite them. We’re welcomed to a world where pain is progress, where love is in abundance, no matter the size and constitution of the woman holding it. Her trove of medical aids is just a part of what made Frida the badass warrior that she was. My prosthetics of past and present have also allowed me to be where I am today. My wheelchair allows me to venture out effortlessly, and Michael Cane gives me the freedom of choice and continuity. While symbols of tragedy to most, to me they represent the good that is still inherent in a traumatic life experience.
Thank you, Frida, for reminding us that there is much beauty in frailty and that vulnerability is what allows us to hold on and let go at the same time.
Frida Kahlo, Beyond the Myth, will be in exhibition until June 3, 2018.