Frida in Africa. Interview with Bárbara Rousseaux, Perla Labarthe and María Teresa Moya

Arturo Mendoza
Barbara Rousseaux, Perla Labarthe, and Maria Teresa Moya have participated in a unique collaboration in which work by the painter Frida Kahlo is exhibited for the first time, not only in South Africa but in the African continent.

Arturo Mendoza: What is JCAF and what is its objective? 
Barbara Rousseaux:
The Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) is a non-profit organization active since 2020 as a philanthropic project, free to visitors. The objective is to bring exhibitions which do not normally come to South Africa to a South African audience and position JCAF as a world-class South African institution. We have three very important axes: research, technology, and exhibitions.

AM: The new JCAF exhibition is called Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South. What is the exhibition about, and why these three artists?
The exhibition compares the paths of these three artists considered national heritage in their countries: from Mexico, Frida Kahlo; from India, Amrita Sher-Gil, and from South Africa, Irma Stern. The exhibition closes our first theme around women in the Global South. We wanted this third exhibition to be of iconic artists in Modernism, and we wanted to focus on portraits and self-portraits. Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil made many self-portraits, so we were interested in the dialogue between their personal history through the mirroring of themselves. Irma Stern, on the other hand, never made a self-portrait, but we were also interested in portrait. Sher-Gil, for example, made several, such as the work we are exhibiting, a portrait of her three nieces. She also painted people on the street in New Delhi; there is always something being said about themselves, representing their personal histories through their bodies and identities and also through others.

AM: This is the first work by Frida Kahlo to reach the African continent. Could you tell us a little about the significance of this fact for the continent and, of course, for South Africa, and JCAF?
I think something very important is that this is the first time the works of Amrita Sher-Gil, who is also national heritage in India, are being exhibited in Africa, and it is also the first time these three artists gather; a lot of things add up. Frida Kahlo, obviously, attracts more public attention. It was like Frida’s boom, but for us it is important to emphasize that South African audiences probably can’t travel to Paris, Mexico, or the United States to see these works. For us, it is a matter of accessibility and a matter of positioning making these pieces, these photographs, and these objects accessible to people in South Africa.

AM: How was Frida’s work on display selected and what are the vicissitudes encountered in mounting this exhibition?
This exhibition comes almost five years after the research and negotiations to secure the artwork loans began. After many years of trying, we finally met the Harry Ransom Center, an institution in Austin, Texas. I think there was a connection with the board of this institution, which owns one of the most interesting self-portraits of Frida. Regarding the other collaborations we have had, in Mexico the most important was with the Frida Kahlo Museum, which has lent us photographs, retablos, and the most iconic thing that audiences are waiting to see: Frida’s blouse and skirt, which add up to what people already have in their imagination. I think that is something unique and very special, and, for this exhibition, we have the presence of representatives of the museum. This is important because of the type of relations with the Global South that JCAF wishes to establish, we want to relate and position ourselves with them. In that sense, I believe that the Frida Kahlo Museum is one of the most important institutions.

AM: Perla, could you tell something about Frida’s work on display at JCAF? What is the importance of this work, and what moment in Frida’s artistic career does it belong to?
Perla Labarthe:
The exhibition that we are seeing in South Africa about Frida and two other great artists of the Global South makes us very happy and grateful to JCAF for this collaborative project that allows us, in the Frida Kahlo Museum to talk about her with different audiences, with a completely new audience. For us, it is a pleasure and an honor to be able to show Frida’s work in a region where she had not been presented before. Frida Kahlo had not been seen in Africa before, there was no presence of her here. The pieces on display are some photographs from the Museum’s collection, some textile works, a reproduction of her diary, and, of course, the magnificent work lent by the Harry Ransom Center, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, a fantastic work that Frida painted in 1940 when she was going through her divorce from Diego Rivera and that has many interesting elements. Of course, Frida’s work is very autobiographical and here we also see a piece of her life, of the life she is telling us about. Several elements are recurrent in her work such as the use of vegetation in the background; the presence of her animals or pets is also there, with a little monkey, which could be Fulang Chang, or this cat that the artist uses as a reference to a photograph by Martin Munkácsi and that makes a very interesting balance between the two animals that flank her. There are some other attributes, such as the necklace of thorns that some researchers have probably identified as a crown of thorns, and also the hummingbird, which Frida sometimes uses as symbol for her eyebrows, and that is an iconic part by which we recognize Frida in different drawings or graphic interpretations. This piece allows us to see a splendid artwork form a moment in which Frida reaches a very important plastic ability in her career. How it is displayed in the exhibition seeks the work to be appreciated almost in a spiritual way, with all the environment adapted to be able to appreciate one of the most important Frida Kahlo’s works.

AM: Could you tell us about the Frida Kahlo Museum? What is exhibited there and how important is the legacy of this great artist for Mexico and the world?
The Frida Kahlo Museum is the house where Frida lived from birth and throughout her childhood and youth, accompanied by her parents and her three sisters. She will live there later when she marries Diego Rivera and until the end of her days. So today’s museum is the creative environment where Frida developed her career. What we show there is a very personal collection of Frida. On the one hand, we have her oil paintings that allow us to see the first stages of the development of her artistic career, some unfinished paintings that reflect her creative development, as well as some works that she painted for herself. We also have her work Viva la vida, the last one she signed. And have personal objects, popular traditional art, exvotos (votive offerings), photographs, and all these items, which belonged to Frida and also to Diego, allow us to know the environment that surrounded her and inspired her to create these wonderful works of art.

AM: In addition to this extraordinary pictorial work, she also wrote letters, poems, and her diary; she left a rich legacy as a writer and poet, but not as well known as her paintings. Could you tell us a little about her poems and letters to Diego?
Frida was a complete artist. Of course, the best-known part is her plastic production, but she also has a series of intervened traditional art. And of course, she also has all this literary production that we can read in her letters, diaries, and poems. The letters, besides allowing us to understand Frida’s everyday life—in that time letters were a common way in which how people communicated— they also allow us to know the people with whom she had a relationship and, above all, they let us meet Frida’s outstanding writing. We find her sense of humor, her ability to communicate in different languages, to make puns in English and Spanish, to accompany some of those letters with drawings. There is a very playful side of Frida in these letters and many of her phrases that have transcended derive from them. Although Frida’s writing is not so well known, it is a very important part for understanding her. Just as we understand Frida through her pictorial work, I think we also understand her when we visit her house, when we know her creative environment, her intimate universe, and we also know her in another way when we read her letters because that is reading her life through her words. Although letters are snapshots of a moment, addressed to a particular person, they allow us to know what she was thinking or what she wanted to say to someone. I think these are very rich elements to understanding her, to know her, to appreciate her work through her literary expression.

AM: In her diary Frida records the last decade of a turbulent life, accompanied by physical and emotional pain. In what way have her literary contributions been important to understand her pictorial work and her life?
The diary was written, as you say, in the last 10 years of her life, a very complicated time, especially the last years in terms of her health, and notably the last one, 1953. The diary has a fantastic richness, not only in literary terms but also pictorial. We see in it many reflections, many word games, concepts that she develops; we also see explosions of color, of ideas, of thoughts to understand her from another point of view. The diary is a creative exercise through a book: we see some mixtures of techniques, a lot of ink, and the truth is that it takes us through a different reflection than that of her pictorial work or her letters. The diary deals with much more intimate reflections about the thoughts she has already had in this last decade.

AM: It is impossible to talk about Frida without talking about Diego and vice versa, isn’t it? It is therefore important to know a little about Diego’s life and the Anahuacalli Museum. Tere, could you tell us about them?
María Teresa Moya:
I completely agree with you. In fact, Perla Labarthe, General Coordinator of the Frida Kahlo Museum, and I, have commented that foreign or Mexican visitors cannot go to the Frida Kahlo Museum without visiting the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum too, because if you only visit the first one you will only get half of the experience. To have the full experience of what these two great artists were, of what they meant to Mexico in the last century, you have to go to the Anahuacalli to get the whole meaning. The Anahuacalli has a space where we mainly house Diego’s collection. He collected 50,000 pre-Hispanic pieces. About 2500 are exhibited in the museum, so 95% of the collection is stored in a warehouse designed by Juan O’Gorman together with Rivera. We took on the task of building a new warehouse and, once we got into this, we also built new workshops and offices. It resulted in a marvelous architectural complex inside the Anahuacalli that respects Diego’s own Anahuacalli. If you want to know everything about Frida, you also have to talk about Diego, who was not only her husband but also her teacher, her friend, her life partner, who introduced her to the world of painting, who was somehow able to project Frida when she was still alive and who began, after Frida’s death, to establish Frida where she is positioned today.

AM: Is there a relationship between the Frida Kahlo Museum and the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum?
We are totally different museums; each has its own vocation, its own history, its own concept of what a museum should be, and totally different museographies. But ultimately we are complementary. We belong to the same trust, we are siblings, we complement each other very much, and we have an excellent relationship. Visitors of Frida Kahlo Museum are invited there to visit Anahuacalli, because of what I was saying, we are complementary museums, and because, if people want to have a complete experience, it is mandatory that they know both and that they see the perspective that Frida had of things. Diego’s perspective is also important, the desire of both of them to rescue the best of Mexico, to preserve it.

AM: What is Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum’s proposal today?
With the new spaces we want the public to know what Diego thought and wanted. We have an enormous desire at the Anahuacalli to promote a dialogue between pre-Hispanic art and contemporary art. The Anahuacalli has been presenting contemporary art continuously for about fifteen years; every year there are one to three exhibitions. In 2022 we had five and we hope to have more. We also want to create a dignified place, in this perspective, for traditional art. Frida and Diego were deeply interested in building a fundamental place for the traditional artist in art, in Mexican culture history. We seek to continue fostering this dialogue between pre-Hispanic art and contemporary art and to weave it through architecture, the sum of the artistic with the natural, with what you can feel, with what you can vibrate. That’s what we think Diego felt and that’s what we want to share.

AM: Thank you so much, Barbara, Perla, and María Teresa for sharing with us, and a big thank you too to JCAF for making this first collaboration possible, in which Frida Kahlo is showed for the first time in Africa.
Barbara Rousseaux is the Project Manager for Latin America at the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation.

Perla Labarthe is the General Coordinator of the Frida Kahlo, Casa Azul Museum in Mexico City.

María Teresa Moya is the General Coordinator of the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City.

Arturo Mendoza is the former Director of UNAM Office in South Africa.

The exhibition’s catalogue can be dowloaded here: https://jcaf.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/JCAF_MIGS_DIGITAL-CAT.pdf.
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