As we begin the month of October and ghosts and skulls fill our homes, I am reminded of the holy days that await us. Poignant to my own background, Dia de los Muertos beckons us to remember who has gone before us. Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that is officially celebrated on October 31 and November 1 in a manner similar to the pagan Samhain holiday and the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. It is a time for Mexican families to remember their lost loved ones, to celebrate their lives, and to pray on their behalf.
It is fitting that we remember the many Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist that have gone before us: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, , Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia. These icons join with many others on display as my solo show at Woven Soul Gallery in Winston-Salem, NC. As we prepare for Dia de los Muertos, the holy woman icon dearest to my heart is none other than the Mexican feminist and revolutionary artist, Frida Kahlo.
Ever the revolutionary, Kahlo insisted that she was born on July 7, 1910, which is three years and one day later than her birth certificate indicates. Believing so deeply in the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo wanted her life to begin with the modern life of Mexico. During adolescence she never showed a tremendous interest in art. But in September of 1925 everything changed. Kahlo was injured while riding a bus that collided with a trolley in Mexico City. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and uterus, thus making difficult her ability to conceive. Covered in the gold dust of another passenger on board, she was rushed to the hospital only to discover that she had a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, along with eleven fractures in her right leg, a dislocated shoulder, and a crushed and dislocated right foot. It is during the subsequent three months in a full body cast that Kahlo began experimenting with painting in earnest.
It wasn’t long before Frida Kahlo and the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, fell in love. Over time, they became part of the “spiritual landscape of Mexico, like Popocatepeti and Iztaccihuatl in the valley of Anahuac (Hayden Herrera, Frida, 106).” Though she savored her role as the adoring and beautiful wife of the genius artist, she was also a feminist, artist, and political revolutionary in her own right. In fact, one may say that Frida Kahlo was the inaugurator of folk feminist art, emblematic of national and indigenous traditions, offering an unwavering depiction of the female form and experience. Upon marrying Rivera, she maintained her own last name, something almost unheard of in 1929. This gesture was indicative of her stance on many issues.
Their marriage was a troubled one. Though he was never esteemed as particularly handsome, Rivera was charming and was a well-known lady’s man. No doubt, he was unfaithful, including a marriage-ending tryst with Kahlo’s younger sister, Cristina. The couple remarried one year after being divorced. Frida, a sexually fluid woman, also cheated on Diego. Most famous among her affairs were artist Isamu Noguchi and dancer/singer/actress Josephine Baker. Like her husband, Kahlo did not feel confined to the boundaries society placed upon married couples, artists, or women in general.
Kahlo is remembered for saying, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down…The other accident is Diego.” Her life was riddled with anguish. She suffered physically from her bus accident; she suffered emotionally from her intense love and utter despair enmeshed in her marriage; and she suffered spiritually as a Mexican revolutionary who longed for equal treatment for all her people. This suffering, of course, manifested itself in her painting, both on canvas and on her body. In her countless self portraits we gaze at one who adorned her body with the classic Mexican dress, which she claimed “has been created by the people for the people.” Ribbons, ruffles, bright colors, jewels, and sashes increased as Kahlo’s health decreased. Herrara claims that “Frida’s decoration was touching: it was at once an affirmation of her love of life and a signal of her awareness—and defiance—of pain and death (Hererra, Frida, 113).”
As I considered how I might pay homage to this revolutionary feminist artist, I knew at once she must be seated in front of casa azul, the home that birthed her love of painting, the home where she first learned of revolution, the home where she thrived most, and the home where she suffered most. Draped in the dress that connected her more fully with her people and the earth, Frida gazes back at us, her arms outstretched in a gesture of embrace, as though she is liberating the Mexican people she loved so deeply. Seated in front of the home where she learned to paint her reality, her heart speaks to us:
Broken and bent
Yet her heart soared…
She painted her reality
Kahlo’s reality was one of suffering—individually and corporately. In these ways she emboldens us to power on, creating beauty in the midst of suffering, and seeking to create a world where all humanity is treated equally.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. Next year, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com