Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida – The artist who resisted branding. (Theatre Review)

Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida

Théâtre Excentrique with The Old 505 Theatre.

23 April to 4 May. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Mansoor Noor

For artists Humberto Robles, Anna Jahjah and Kate Bookallil, Frida Kahlo’s ability to resist branding herself is exemplified in the endless attempt to brand her that has surrounded her after her death. Forty years after her death Andy Warhol would create the work Dollar Signs which are a brazen reminder that pictures by brand-name artists are metaphors for money, a situation that never troubled him. For Frida Kahlo her inability to be properly classified (painted as a refusal by this play) has resulted in what Humberto Robles feared; a complete appropriation of Frida Kahlo as a brand. For many artists since, the blurring of the borders between consumer culture, brand culture, art direction and advertising agencies have become a source of critique and investigation. The more Frida Kahlo refused to be associated with movements or systems within the art world, the more thrilling and interesting her brand became. Her art has become an impressive cultural referent system that, ironically is reproduced to sell the mundane as avant garde. While brand culture is a ‘thing’ now-a-days, there can be no question that Frida Kahlo herself would criticize this by shedding light on negative implications of consumption and market forces. Today, marketing research would defend itself by claiming it takes advantage of useful tools developed throughout art history and cultural studies to investigate the poetics and politics of branding as a representational system and potentially become more sensitive to representational politics. But Fridomania, as Humberto Robles disparagingly refers to the passion for Frida Kahlo’s work still sees poor reproductions of Frida Kahlo on the side of coffee cups that forget as he would say “the communist… the bisexual… the drug user.”

While her bisexuality and her drug use might still be en vogue, there is absolutely no doubt her communism is entirely forgotten in the capital appropriation of her work at every level. In May 2016 her “Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself)” sold for eight million dollars, a record for the artist. An anonymous bidder that purchased her painting “Roots” for over five and a half million is rumored to be Madonna who has an extensive collection of Frida’s work. In 1990, Frida Kahlo was the first Latin-American artist to cross the million-dollar threshold. If Leon Trotsky’s words are any guide to the heart of Frida Kahlo this money is antithetical to what a communist vision for the artist might be. For Trotsky, once the poisons created by the greed of class and caste are absent, competition will be sublimated and come out in struggles for one’s opinion, one’s project and one’s taste. “… Liberated passions will be channeled into technique, into construction. Art then will become more general, will mature, will become tempered and will become the most perfect method of the progressive building of life in every field.”[1] Is not this precisely the life portrayed in Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida? As a communist, her art was intended as pure self-expression. It was meant to signify her own projects and be a meditation on life itself. It was intended to defy bourgeois conventions such as ‘style’ ‘movement’ or ‘genre.’ If there is one defining statement that encapsulates Frida Kahlo’s work and offers a ‘heads up’ as to how it is to be interpreted, it should be seen as an expression of an artist realizing a communist world. Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida properly and completely sees the artist in this way. While not necessarily extoling the virtues of a communist life, it does interpret the artist as in full command of her representations of the world, and repositions any ambiguities in her historical positioning as deliberate and intentional.

We thus come full circle to the sublime decision to represent the artist in theatre. Certainly, independent theatre is entirely unencumbered by filthy lucre and there is no temptation to appropriate the artist for the pleasure of a financial transaction. Instead we are brought back into the room with the artist herself and the pulsing heart of her works. And herein lies the brilliance of this theatrical production. The works as commodified product never appear. Instead, director Anna Jahjah takes the works and transports them to life sized brown paper images to show Frida “bathed in her art while telling her story.” This low-fi approach completely locates the art inside the artist, and relieves it from the burden it has forced to carry as reproduction after Frida Kahlo’s death. When Kate Bookallil becomes Frida Kahlo for our satisfaction, we are transported to the artist herself, who does not oppress us with biography, but envelopes us in a joi de vivre that only a seriously ill artist can bring to the world. This is a striking performance by Kate Bookallil, who manages to convince us that a very tiny woman can carry the world inside her and have us see ourselves in every image of self she creates. Kate Bookallil presents to us the artist who has become so focused on the interior, that all self-obsession is obliterated.

This is a sublime production from Théâtre Excentrique and director Anna Jahjah. With assistive lighting from Larry Kelly and beautiful costume design from Olivia Auday, the colours and joy in Frida Kahlo’s existence come to touch us at the 505 Theatre. Language and cultural consultants Ana Cuellar and Kris Shalvey assist with costume and authenticity while a truly shocking sound triggers our constant reminder of the pain that was Frida Kahlo’s constant companion.

Of all the images Kate Bookallil gives us of the great Frida Kahlo, perhaps the most shocking is the woman sitting astride a skeleton on a bed. This image of death as Frida Kahlo’s lover reveals more to us of who the woman was and what she was seeking to impart through her paintings than the super cool tote bags can convey. Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida has become the natural conduit for a deeper understanding of what Frida Kahlo might have wanted to say through her works. Inside of this, we must understand, Fridomania severs us from the artist, and it is up to the theatre to heal the wound.

[1] Revolutionary and Socialist art – Leon Trotsky (1923) You can read this interesting essay here.