Hannah Andrews on the importance of finding the balance between artist and icon
“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and all of the nights that I am away from you.” Could Frida Kahlo have foreseen how true these words would become? As Kahlo’s image becomes more ubiquitous than ever, Frida and I, a short film celebrating the artist’s legacy through the eyes of women inspired by her,, tries to strike the right balance between Kahlo’s influence as an artist and an icon.
More than 60 years on from her death, with her image seen in contexts from key chains to limited edition Converse sneakers, Kahlo is undoubtedly an international icon. It is a status well founded; the strength, defiance and unapologetic self-expression that defines the artist and her artwork are powerful messages that resonate timelessly and universally, providing a powerful role-model across the globe.
Paradoxically however, hand in hand with Kahlo’s notoriety, comes the danger of losing connection with her artwork. As curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm has said of the artist: “Sometimes someone becomes so famous they become invisible,” leaving the work behind their fame lost.
As “Fridamania” continues to grow, we must find ways to maintain our connection with the artwork behind the artist, as it is through Kahlo’s paintings that she shared the beliefs, feelings and story that continue to inspire so many. The rich tapestry of imagery in Kahlo’s paintings is the key to understanding the psychological and emotional honesty, the exploration of gender, nationality and identity, the radical portrayal of female experience that make her work enduringly universal today.
How can we simultaneously celebrate Kahlo’s impact as a powerful symbol of self-expression, bravery and strength, while maintaining a connection to the artworks at the foundation of this symbolic status? This was one of the key questions behind the film Frida and I.
Exploring the artist’s work and life through the contemporary lens of Mexican singer-songwriter Ely Guerra, Frida and I celebrates Kahlo through the portrayal of another female talent living the artist’s legacy, while not losing sight of the artwork that makes this legacy so powerful. Focusing on the strength of both Kahlo and Guerra’s voices, the film invites viewers to delve into the language of Kahlo’s paintings while not forgetting that one of her most powerful legacies is that of finding one’s own voice, one’s own way of sharing beliefs, feelings and story with the world.
To capture this, the film unfolds around the physical transformation of Guerra into a living, breathing artwork inspired by the visual language of Kahlo’s paintings, and created by acclaimed artist Alexa Meade. Meade too captures Kahlo’s spirit of unique self-expression; as a one-of-her-kind artist, Meade uses Ely Guerra’s body and her own artist’s studio to create a human scale, three dimensional artwork. In doing so, Meade boldly paints Frida Kahlo’s legacy into the present day, while providing a dramatic backdrop against which Guerra’s own story can be told.
As Meade literally transforms Guerra into an artwork, the singer/songwriter becomes increasingly part of the painted world of Kahlo around her, a world also informed by Cristina Kahlo – art curator, photographer and Frida Kahlo’s great-niece. However, rather than disappearing into that world, the film foregrounds Guerra’s own voice and her own experience of expressing herself through music: “Music is my roommate, my love, my hate, my doubts and certainties, my silence and my loudness.”
Meade’s striking visuals respond to the challenge of drawing out similarities between Kahlo and Guerra while making clear the critical difference between the two women; after all, the greatest similarity between these two women is their powerful individuality. Instead of painting Guerra into Kahlo, she is painted in a vibrant yellow suit – a reference to both Guerra and Kahlo’s ease with exploring the edges of gender – standing out as her own woman in Meade’s painted world. This balance between connection and unique self-expression feels not only true to Guerra and Meade’s relationship with Kahlo but also to our more universal relationship with her artwork; imagination can be inspired by Kahlo’s work, however ultimately the experience and understanding of it is one’s own. As Guerra put it, looking at Kahlo’s paintings is like “having a conversation with myself”.
The cinematography of Frida and I was also designed to create a balance between documentary realism and the abstract nature of interacting with Kahlo’s artwork and world. In the same way that Kahlo told her true story through art bordering on surreal, by shooting with gliders, using macro cinematography and rich lighting, the cinematography of Frida and I was designed to break down the traditional boundaries of documentary filmmaking and leave it somewhere in between. This was underlined in the composition of the shots. Each shot was balanced to hint at the composition of a painting yet rooted in capturing Guerra naturally and at ease; again, bridging that gap between Kahlo’s artwork, her influence and the real lives of the women who follow in her footsteps today.
To find the right balance between Kahlo the icon, Kahlo the artist and Kahlo as lived by women and men today is a difficult challenge, and Frida and I is just a start. After all it is almost impossible to put a pin on the artist’s legacy; it is not only vast, but also intensely personal, something lived by each individual who connects differently with the themes explored in her work. Frida and I aims to capture this feeling; presenting an invitation to both explore Kahlo’s unique voice, and to use this as inspiration to find our own. As Guerra says: “I am just Ely, trying to understand life through the best gift I have received from it: a voice”.