Recently, I visited the “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This exhibition comes as a result of a small treasure trove of Frida’s belongings and photographs being opened to the public fifty years after her death, in 2004.
I had seen plenty of press coverage of this exhibition, and what stuck out for me, as a disabled woman, was that here was an exhibition which spoke fearlessly about disability, something which is rare in the art and exhibition world.
Frida Kahlo contracted polio at the age of six, which left her with one leg shorter than the other, giving her a pronounced limp. Then, when she was eighteen, she was involved in a serious bus crash, which left her with multiple serious injuries, in particular to her spine, and made her infertile.
As a result of this accident, she was forced to spend many years of accumulated time during the course of her life lying immobilised in bed. Her family decided to put a mirror above her bed and create an apparatus which allowed her to paint, and the world is a better place for the surrealist, deeply personal art she produced. She painted herself into many of her paintings, and part of their beauty is that you can see her suffering and her determination painted into them.
Not only was Frida a disabled woman, she was also a woman of colour, a Mexican nationalist who was proud of her Mexican and Indian heritage (through her mother’s side) which gave her the striking looks you can see in the portrait above, with the large connected eyebrows and the facial hair. This intersectionality, I believe, caused Frida to develop a pragmatic attitude to her painting and her appearance. Like many disabled people, she wanted to present a “healthy” and strong front to the world, and her ethnicity led her to choose to present herself as a proud Mexican woman, wearing the traditional Mexican clothing of her era, and always having flowers woven into her hair.
One of my friends, Naomi Young, wrote a blog post after her visit to the exhibition. She found the whole thing prurient and voyeuristic; finding that looking at Frida’s painted plaster casts (Frida spent many months of her life in full body casts) and prosthetics made her feel like she was intruding into an aspect of Frida’s life which the artist herself chose to keep hidden from view. I see her point, but as a disabled woman, I do not entirely agree.
I suffer from a condition called fibromyalgia. I am not going to explain my symptoms here, but my disability is hidden (there are no outward physical signs that I am unwell) and I spend a lot of my time putting on that “healthy” front to the world, just as Frida did. I also refuse to allow my disability to stop me living my life, just as Frida did.
The problem with doing this, however, is that most people don’t know that I am suffering, and even some of my close family and friends don’t see how much I struggle on a daily basis. They ask me how I am and I say “I’m fine, thank you”, but very few actually see past this and ask “No, how are you really?”
Many people with chronic disabilities such as Frida and myself are forced to spend large parts of our lives hidden away at home because we are too sick or immobilised (as in Frida’s case) to go out. This can lead to feeling isolated, lonely and invisible.
In 2016, in London, there was a protest called “Millions Missing”, where hundreds of pairs of shoes were placed on the pavement, with labels naming their owners. This was a protest to highlight the many people who suffer from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) or chronic fatigue syndrome and who are so badly bed-bound that they are simply missing from society.
Going and seeing this exhibition, I hope, will give people a better realisation of what those of us, like Frida, who must hide our disabilities, go through on a daily basis, and I also hope that people will come away with more sympathy towards disabled people. Hate crimes against disabled people have risen considerably over the past few years, and exhibitions like this help to take away the stigma around disability.
Frida Kahlo wrote: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone.” Most of all, this exhibition helps me (and many like me) feel less alone.