I spotted it from across the room and immediately hurried my pace. Gingerly hung in the cold, dead space of a stark, white room in the Museum of Modern Art was a vibrant self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, rich with color. I was surprised that Kahlo had only one piece on display at a world-class museum in the middle of Manhattan. I was also surprised to see that right next to the image was a mirror – also created by Kahlo – so that viewers could picture themselves right alongside her.
I was trying to appreciate the piece when, out of left-field, a well-dressed, Brooklyn-esque white couple appeared with their signature Nikon D5200 and began to take a bounty of selfies in the mirror for what felt like twenty minutes. This got me thinking about the use of Kahlo’s image in the public sphere by people who know nothing about her politics.
Frida Kahlo would not only be disappointed with the well-dressed gentrifiers of Brooklyn ignoring her vibrant self-portrait, I’m sure she would also be pissed about the widespread use of her image on everything from socks and shirts to dresses and earrings.
Kahlo was an incredibly badass, anti-capitalist, queer, Mexican womxn who rejected homogenized, Euro-centric ideals of beauty, all while learning how to live with and embrace her own physical disabilities.
Kahlo’s image was a direct form of political resistance–she darkened her famous unibrow and never shaved her mustache as a way to oppose Western ideals of femininity, she consistently wore traditional Mexican clothing, she was an outspoken supporter of communism, and she even once referred to the United States as “gringolandia.”
Grievances aside, I have to acknowledge my role in speaking on Kahlo’s behalf, because although I identify as both queer and chicanx, I’m also male, and can’t ignore the glaring privilege I have in regard to speaking on this issue.
Historians suggest that Kahlo painted self-portraits in order to immortalize herself, but I’m sure she would be pressed to find that massive corporations are now profiting from the use of said portraits on every product in the market. I’m sure she would also be upset to find out that said products are most likely made by womxn of color in sweatshops or factories in which they are severely mistreated and underpaid. Kahlo’s face can be found across a wide range of mainstream retailers, including H&M, Forever 21 and Society6. White girls everywhere are prancing about rocking Frida tees as a mere fashion statement, working to commodify her image and get social points for supporting a revolutionary figure.
Big brands should not be profiting off the use of Kahlo’s image, or any other revolutionary figure for that matter. Not only are those brands making a profit off of historical figures who would probably scoff at them, it isn’t clear where their money is going.
I can tell you where it isn’t going: It isn’t going toward helping any of the womxn of color who worked tirelessly to produce the final product, it isn’t being donated to any organization that promotes the health and well-being of indigenous womxn across the world, and it definitely isn’t going to any disabled queer womxn like Kahlo.
Although I find the wide-spread popularity of Kahlo’s image incredibly ironic, I also know that there are plenty of incredible womxn of color out there who are aware of her legacy and rock her image with pride. I just can’t help but feel that Frida’s political message has become increasingly small in a stark white room.