The Arts Scene: Living portrait brings Frida Kahlo to life

In 1926, Frida Kahlo began painting as she was recovering from a near-fatal accident in which a streetcar collided with the bus she was traveling in. From 1926 until 1954, she painted over 60 self-portraits and 80 additional works. It was the self-referential style of art that became her medium to explore her own personality.

She married artist Diego Rivera in 1929. He was famous for his large works that established the Mexican mural movement. Her work recorded the tumultuous relationship with him. She also never quite recovered from her accident, and her self-portraits illustrated her struggles with deteriorating health as she suffered through numerous spinal surgeries and miscarriages.

In 1939, Kahlo divorced her husband and returned to Mexico; she had been living with him in Detroit. It was during this time that she created the work “Las dos Fridas.” The portrait shows her split into two identities. One had her wearing a white lace dress, reflective of her European heritage; she was born in Coyoacán, Mexico, the daughter of a German father and a mother of Spanish and Native American ancestry. Her other identity wears a Tehuana dress representing the woman Diego had loved as she clutches a photo of him.

In the artwork, the Frida in white has cut her artery, staining her dress. The two Fridas show their hearts exposed and connected to each other. The dark, foreboding clouds in the background help to encompass the gloom and pain in the work.

The original work, now in the collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, is 5-foot 8-inches square, yet two-dimensional. On Sunday in Tieton, it was brought into three dimensions during the Dia de los Muertos Community Celebrations.

For artist and performer Amaranta Ibarra Sandys, the idea came about over a cup of coffee with Jennifer Bennett. Amaranta performs as Frida in Tehuana dress. The two knew they needed a costume designer who could also portray Frida Kahlo. The result is Frida’s other identity, in white, performed by Emily McLaughlin.

A description at the event describes that the live painting is “meant as a tribute to Frida Kahlo’s accomplishments, tears, obstacles, and short — yet profoundly productive — life.”

When I arrived, the installation was set with gloomy clouds in the background, the floor set with marigolds and candles. An introduction table was set with information about the installation, and Emily and Amaranta were completing last-minute preparations.

The two hearts, which Jennifer would eventually use to connect the two, were laying on the seat where they would perform. As Jennifer pinned them on and connected them, the vein connecting the two hearts began to blink. This added another depth to the live painting, and the reason for the dim light, Amaranta says. They later added a lighted blue vein to their production.

They held calmly and still in the positions established in the original painting. The live painting was encompassed in an area surrounded by large wooden bins. To experience it fully, I sat on the floor in front of the two Fridas. Almost motionless, Emily and Amaranta became the two identities of Frida Kahlo. I did not wish to interrupt the presence they created, so quietly thanked them and left.

As I found my way out, a smoky incense filled the Mighty Tieton warehouse and children began decorating sugar skulls while visitors enjoyed the giant sand painting. The entire warehouse became a celebration of the art of the Dia de los Muertos, and the two Fridas in the dim light of the corner were a living portrait of a Mexican artist.

David Lynx is executive director of the Larson Gallery at Yakima Valley College. Learn more at www.larsongallery.org.

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