“Frida Cow-lo,” the painted Fiberglas cow in the front gallery at Art Forum of Waco, serves as a good introduction as any to the exhibit it’s in, “Frida Kahlo: Fountain of Inspiration.”
It’s a joint creation by Waco artists Jesus Rivera, Deborah Reed-Propst and Al Landoll, each with an interpretation of the 20th century Mexican artist: Rivera on the cow’s right side, Reed-Propst on the left and Landoll a centering strip down the back and tail.
The symbols come from Kahlo’s life and work. A deer with Kahlo’s head, wounded by arrows, representing lifelong physical pain and emotional pain, the latter inflicted largely by her husband, famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Birds and monkeys, the former a stand-in for freedom, the latter her household pets. Bright colors and flowers, common elements in her painting. A crumbling column, an image from a painting, and a quetzal, a nod to her indigenous roots. Red lace-up boots, worn after polio and multiple surgeries. Fetuses in utero, representing several miscarriages.
On the cow’s forehead, another Frida signature, a unibrow.
For those casually acquainted with the Mexican artist, who died at the age of 47 in 1954, floral headdresses, unibrow, faint moustache and sometimes surreal images of hearts, veins and open wounds might come to mind.
For the 52 artists in the multi-national show, those are only the outer representation of a woman brave enough to share her pain, her feelings about her body and her country in her art and it’s that transparency that’s celebrated — artistically, of course — in the Art Forum show.
“Frida painted her life,” said Reed-Propst. “She used art as a way to heal . . . A lot of us as artists use art to heal as well.”
Waco artist Rocio Ramirez Landoll, one of the show’s organizers, said Kahlo’s varied life experience created a personality with multiple identities, one reason for a broad popularity today that escaped her during her life. “There were many different faces to Frida: wife, artist, lesbian, indigenous Mexican woman, political activist,” she said.
Rivera, artist and Art Forum owner, collaborated with Ramirez Landoll and Waco artist Diane Torres on the Kahlo show. It’s the fourth and final show for the Art Forum that Landoll and Torres have created as part of a working agreement between the two and the Art Forum.
“We are grateful to Jesus and Arturo (Huron). They’ve been very good in this partnership and provided us the space,” Torres said. Even though the Kahlo show may be their last to mount in the Art Forum, Torres said it won’t be the end. “We can’t stop doing this,” she said. “With every exhibit, we have more artists coming out from Waco.”
The idea for a Kahlo show had been circulating for months, but organizers were surprised and pleased at the response. A call for artists led to works by 52 artists from five countries, including Mexico, Brazil and Chile, and three states. Among the Mexican artists submitting works were Daniel Berrera, Efrain Guzman, Juana Sanchez, Liliana Lerma, Yamuky Ortiz and Rolando de la Rosa.
“When our gallery has a call for artists, they respond immediately,” noted Rivera. “We need it. Art helps to change the culture of the city.” For many of the artists responding, Kahlo represents a similar soul. “Her work is all about passion and suffering and pain,” Rivera said.
Landoll and Torres went to Mexico City in May to secure some of the artwork and visit Kahlo’s home, La Casa Azul (the Blue House), now a state museum. “It was such an electric feeling, going in her house and seeing her room was so personal. This was a woman. This was a girl,” she said.
The art in “Frida Kahlo: Fountain of Inspiration” ranges from variations of her portrait to more pointed cultural commentary. De la Rosa’s “Fragmentation” places an image of Marilyn Monroe’s body with Kahlo’s head over an American flag with Mexican symbols. Landoll’s “Irony of Frida” imagines a Barbie doll that looks and is dressed like Kahlo fixed on a broken mirror and framed with tiny lights — a symbolic commercialization of the Mexican artist that ran counter to her communist and nationalist beliefs.
In a case of life imitating art, Jamie Graham created her fabric art tribute to Kahlo while recovering from heart surgery, Landoll said.
The Art Forum exhibit also includes a nod to contemporary audiences with a room created for an immersive, selfie-friendly experience. Torres painted floor-to-ceiling fabric backdrops in images suggesting Kahlo’s work to surround the walls for a selfie room that offers another photo opportunity: Landoll’s stand-up recreation of Kahlo’s famous “The Two Fridas” painting, with cutouts for people to put their faces through.
Saturday’s opening reception gives audience members a chance for their own Kahlo celebration and interpretation as attendees are encouraged to dress like Kahlo. It’s the sort of freedom for personal expression that Kahlo championed.
“She just put herself out there,” Torres said.