What About Frida Kahlo?

by Gabrielle Sclafani
July 12, 2013

Gabrielle Sclafani '14 is a Royce Fellow living in Mexico City researching European expatriates who lived in Mexico during WWII, specifically female surrealist artists. 

If here in Providence we ever feel the slightest paranoia at the profusion of stickers and worn down graffiti featuring the face of André the Giant accompanied by the word OBEY (a campaign started by RISD students in 1989), I think the residents of Mexico City must suffer this feeling a hundredfold in regard to Frida Kahlo. She is impossible to escape – Frida paraphernalia fills tourist shops, her face adorns apparel worn by natives and foreigners alike (in my case this is a shirt featuring a modern Frida sporting a Daft Punk t-shirt and holding a cigarette between fire-engine red acrylic nails…”Get Lucky” is really big in Mexico right now).

As I struggled to communicate constantly in a language that for me was usually restricted to two hour Brown classes among other non-native speakers, I learned to refine my answer to the inevitable question, “¿Que haces aqui, en México? ¿Estás de vacaciones?”

Vacation? Hardly! Yes, Mexico City was new and exciting, but relaxing is not a word that applies. The city sweats in its rush to move, the metros bulging and swaying, stopping suddenly for indeterminate periods with a frequency that would prompt New Yorkers to sue. But the D.F. is no N.Y.C., in Mexico, delays are par for the course. Like on my third day in the city, when I arrived two hours late to a meeting with the director of the Spanish Athenaeum, my most important research lead, and the building in which I would spent most of my time. My excuse? She had provided me with an address for the building, but no neighborhood or zip code. Like any good gringa, I plugged it into Google Maps and sought out the first address that appeared. However, upon arriving, I discovered that the building was most definitely a gym, not a library. After several confused phone calls, we got to the root of the problem. I was at Calle Hamburgo 6 and the corner of Calle Berlin in La Colonia Albert, in the south of the city. The Calle Hamburgo 6 I was supposed to be at, which also shares a corner with a different Calle Berlin, was a forty-minute train ride away in the city’s center. In the D.F., street names repeat themselves. Twenty or thirty times.

The hours I spent each day poring over articles on and memoirs of Spanish expatriates in the city’s Spanish Athenaeum were not what I would call a vacation –it was more like they were part of the most difficult cram session I’ve ever experienced, and the end was nowhere in sight.  But for the same reasons I found it frustrating, it was thrilling; this is a sensation I still am not quite sure how to describe.

So, No, I would answer, I am not on vacation. And then I would explain what I was actually doing: “Estoy aqui para conducir investigaciones.” If I was in a rush, that would suffice, but more often, further questions followed: Research? What kind of research?

On European expatriates who lived here in Mexico during WWII, specifically female surrealist artists.

I learned to recognize a few distinct categories of responses that always followed this admission. There was the polite shoulder shrug from some, or the sparkling, bemused eyes that clearly thought I was crazy from others, and sometimes, there was evidence of genuine interest.

The genuinely interested fell into two categories: there were the academics and those who had gone to European-style schools in Mexico (most often institutions started by the same group of expatriates I was studying), individuals who had been exposed to my subject as an integral part of their education.

More often, though, there were those who were more fascinated by the idea that a twenty-one-year-old American girl would trek south of the border to sit in some library everyday reading about a bunch of dead artists.

Whoever the audience, the final question was always the same: “What about Frida Kahlo?” If I’m studying artists, specifically women, in Mexico City, during the 1940s, then, let’s face it, it all comes down to Frida. But for me, that’s just it; Frida wasn’t the only one, surely she’s the most famous, but there were a lot of incredible female artists living and working in the D.F. during the 40s and 50s. Remedios Varo, Kati Horna, and Leonora Carrington are the most well-known names, but they were not alone. The group I’m interested in, strangely perhaps, never seemed to develop much of a relationship with Frida, Diego, and their cohorts. This was the fact that people in the former category, the people who knew exactly what I meant when I mentioned European Surrealists, found most intriguing. Why didn’t they all work together?

This is just one question of many that remain after my weeks of research. A personal friend of these artists told me that the European group was “private” and that, back in the day, Mexico City was a lot bigger than it is now. That’s hard to believe when I consider the sprawling metropolis of 20 million plus residents from which I just returned. But I think I know what she means. In the 1940s, the distance between the center of the city, where the Europeans lived, and Coyoacan, home to Kahlo’s famed Casa Azul, was not the easy (if slightly claustrophobic) metro ride it is today. Back then, transportation was not so centralized, and perhaps people didn’t see quite as much reason to leave their comfortable neighborhoods for parts unknown. The city was a lot bigger. And a lot smaller too, I think, when I look at the impact a relatively small group of European, mostly Spanish, expatriates had on Mexico during the Cardenas administration. Today, the city is teeming with expatriates of a different breed, young Americans and Europeans pleased to find a place where they can live large for a fraction of the cost, where they can delay the responsibilities of adulthood for as long as they dare, Joni Mitchell’s “refugees from wealthy families,” if you will. They have no Franco or Hitler stopping them from going home. These expats are more terrified of taxes and socialized healthcare than the specter of a dictator, and as I watch this new generation crystalize, I have to wonder: who will they become? Was the magnificent artistic production of my subjects a product of their exile? Their individual ingenuity? The privileges afforded them by the Cardenas Administration? Fifty years from now, will someone be studying today’s American and European expats who I look on with skepticism with the same respect I lend those who were fleeing 1940s Europe? And what’s Frida got to do with it all?