Entertainment & Culture

Caroline Bowditch: falling in love with Frida

Disabled dance artist Caroline Bowditch talks to Nichola Daunton about her latest work Falling in Love with Frida, a show which seeks to reclaim Frida Kahlo as a disabled artist and urges us to reconnect with our bodies and never stop falling in love…

What made you fall in love with Frida? Did you know of her work before you started making the piece, or was she a recent discovery for you?

I went to see a retrospective exhibition of her and Diego’s work in the National Gallery of Australia in 2000 and I don’t think I had really realised who she was before that. I think I’d seen images of her when I was growing, but I hadn’t really made the connection. Anyway, I went to this exhibition and I was a bit underwhelmed by it all. I was a like, “she’s a bit weird, she looks strange, she’s got a mono-brow and her work is really macabre, I mean what is all that about, she’s so miserable!” Then the really sad thing is, that I was 30 at this stage and in my head disability and success didn’t go together. So there was no part of me in that exhibition thinking “do you what, she could have a lived experience of disability, which she is expressing on the canvas”. I just thought she was some crazy Mexican.

So I think, on reflection, I’ve realised how sad it was that I didn’t think disability and success could go together. So it was only later that she moved further and further into my consciousness. I saw the movie in 2008 and thought she was fascinating and a really interesting character and then I had a residency with Dance4, as one of their associate artists, and after three days of not quite knowing what to do, I said to myself “right, what do you know best? You know your bones”. So I started to think of all the things that connect with bones; so skeletons, ceremonial skeletons, Day of the Dead, and before I knew it there was Frida. She appeared and it was like “okay, there we go, I need to do some more reading about you”.

So after I’d done some more research I went out for dinner with Rita Marcello, another disabled artists and I was telling her all these stories and waxing lyrical about Frida “and then she did this, and oh my god I found out this, blah blah blah!” and Rita just looked at me and said “it sounds like you’re falling in love” and I was like “maybe I am!” because it was just like that, where all you can talk about is that person and you find every way possible to include them in a conversation, and yeah, that was what it was like.

I particularly like the fact that at the beginning you weren’t that sure about her, because that is often the way with falling in love, you start out thinking “well you’re a bit underwhelming” and then all of a sudden, bam! You get taken my surprise.

Absolutely! It was exactly like that.

Why did you think it was important to reclaim Frida Kahlo as a disabled artist?

I think Frida is one of the most famous female artists in the world and even though her disability is completely implicit in all of her work, very rarely do people remember her as a disabled artist. So, as a disabled artist myself, there was something in me that said, “yes we can be successful, and yes we can be the highest fetching artists in the world”. So I just really wanted to acknowledge that fact.

I think some of the most interesting questions that have been raised to me in terms of reclaiming her, have been “do you think that is what she would’ve wanted?” and “do you think disability was as much as a focus for her as it might be for you?” Of course I don’t have the answer to either of those questions, but I think it’s really interesting that people are posing them to me. Also, as a disabled artist, I am really fascinated with how in the 1950s, Frida was able to create a life where she was just remembered for her art and not her disability, whereas now it feels like disability is very much the screen through which people view me, whether that is regarding my work or anything else.

What do you think people focus on most when they think of Frida then? The love, the affairs, the art, or the pain?

I think it’s all of those things. I think Diego Rivera (Frida’s on/off husband and fellow artist – they married on two separate occasions) was such a massive part of her life, and recently in post-show discussions people have started saying to me, “it’s really interesting that you don’t mention Diego at all when he was such a big part of her life” and I’m like “Well that’s because I fell in love with her and not with him!” I don’t want him having anything to do with it!

I think it was all of those things though, I think Frida has been presented in many ways, because there is no lack of work around about her. What I’ve done is not unique in any way, shape or form, but I think she’s never been told by a visibly disabled artist before for example. The pain is often the things that is focused, or the affairs, or the torrid romance, she has been very much told from those perspectives before, but not necessarily from a disability perspective.

One of her most famous quotes was that she was “born a bitch and born a painter”, were you born a performer?

I think I probably was actually. When I think back to being a child, my grandma used to have this bay window, which conveniently had curtains which I could reach to close, and I seem to remember putting on an awful lot of concerts for her, which she had to watch. So I think I was, and I think in a way that every person who has a visible disability is a performer, because we are always being watched, whether we want to be or not. There is always an element of performance if you have a visible disability, people will regularly comment, so I think we’re always performing.

What has making this work, and falling in love with Frida, taught you about yourself?

I think the biggest thing I learnt was to be really honest about what our similarities are. She was so passionate and open about her sexuality, and that was such a massive thing, both then and now. I think disability and sexuality is something that we need to talk about more and I think Frida, as I say in the work, made me want to be braver. She made me want to go “this is how it actually is, and we need to be having these conversations”. Plus, I think because she also had time living outside of Mexico, just like I’ve had time living outside of Australia, so we both had the opportunity, in a way, to reinvent ourselves, but were also in tune to the idea of wanting to stay connected to your cultural heritage. So I definitely became very interested in what were our similarities and what were our differences.

One of the things I discovered quite late in my research was that some of the surgery that she had in her later life was potentially unnecessary, and that this was one of the things that bought Diego back to her. So I’m pleased to say that this is a difference between us, and that I’ve never had anything done to myself in order to bring a love back to me. I’m not really into self-inflicted pain, call me boring if you want!

I read that is what one of those classic examples of Diego not realizing how important she was to him until she died

Absolutely, there’s this beautiful quote in her garden at her house, which is Diego saying “I never appreciated you while you were here, but now that you’re not, all I can do is worship you” and it’s like “Ahh dude! Too late!”

He had an affair with her sister too didn’t he?

He did, and a myriad of other women. In fact, there’s an interesting story about when they divorced and then got back together again. There are these two clocks in her house, one is stopped at the time that he left her, and there is a complete copy of it on an opposite wall that is set to the time when they got back together. So there’s this symbolic gap in time, where time supposedly stopped for her because he wasn’t in her life. He also knew that she was having affairs with me, so the deal was that the only people she could have affairs with were women, because apparently less threatening. So I was just like “Hmmm! That’s an interesting concept!”

I think it was when she was separated from him that she came into her own and that is when she started to attract attention as an artist. It was never easy for her though, there was always a bit of Diego shadowing going on, because he was just such a massive character.

You went to Mexico to do some research about Frida, what did you learn from the trip and how did it enrich your work?

I think just being there, going to her house and sitting in the places that she might have sat, being in that house where she was born and where she died, being right next to the urn that had her ashes in it was really important. I was able to see how much she’d left her mark on everything; she so didn’t want to be forgotten. She never wanted to be famous, but she didn’t want to be forgotten, which is a fascinating juxtaposition. So she left her mark everywhere and her house is so full of colour, energy and just amazing things. I also became really overwhelmed by the place itself. Looking at the pictures, you get the sense that everything is very passionate and rich on so many levels. So when I got to Mexico I realised that Mexico City has a total population of 24 million, which is more than the entire population of Australia in just one city, so that was a bit overwhelming for me. Like the sheer noise of Mexico, it just hits you like a wall, so it becomes quite a tactile noise in a way and so that became something that was really important to bring into the work.

So yes, going to her house was very important, but also going to visit the pyramids that she went to with Trotsky, or to float on the boats that there is evidence of her floating on, to be in the same places as she wandered with Diego and her friends, or to go to the ice cream parlour where she would’ve eaten. There was something of the pilgrimage about it all, but it felt so important to get that first hand feel of where she had been been, and to get an image of what her life was like.

Frida became quite political later in her life, and was integral in getting Trotsky to Mexico and then later had an affair with him. How important do you think Communism was to her?

I think it was important because it connected her to a community that was feisty and I think she was incredibly feisty and passionately engaged with all of that conversation. Again, that is one of things that people sometimes say to me “you haven’t focused on the politics very much at all”, and its like “yeah, for me there are more interesting things about her than that”. But I think she got into it because it meant that she could be part of a community that was incredibly engaged and passionate.

What would you like people to take away from the work? Are you keen to teach people something new about her, or get them to see her in a different light?

Firstly, I want the audience to take away from it whatever they find there for them. But I think for me, this piece is about love more than it is about anything else, and in a way I want to remind the audience that we should never stop falling in love, regardless of who it is with. I think also, what I’ve discovered is that people often come tot show and then say “Oh god, I want to go and do more reading about her, I want to find out more!” So yeah, I want to encourage that, I want people to be more engaged with her and look at her again and think for themselves.

Then I also want to reconnect them with their bodies. One of the things we talk about at the end of the show is that as part of the making of Frida, we wrote love letters to our bodies, and I now strongly encourage people to do that, in order to reconnect to their physicality and to recognise and realise that there are things about it that they love and things about it that they would change. Which again, is just like falling in love with someone else; there are things about you, or about them, that you love and there are things, which potentially really annoy you. So I think there’s something in the work about reconnecting people to themselves that is really key for me as well.

If you could meet Frida Kahlo what would you like to do or say to her? Or would you just propose immediately?

I’m not sure how my current girlfriend would feel about me proposing immediately to Frida!

Everyone’s allowed one celebrity, it’s fine!

I was thinking about that actually the other day, just thinking, “what would I do if I met her?” I think I would thank her hugely and I think I would probably want to kiss her, just to see what that’s like. Then I think I would want to tell her to leave Diego behind, and to actually find someone who truly loved her and who wanted to be dedicated completely to her, whether that was me or not. I think she had a really hard ride of it all in the end, and I just wish I could somehow change that and allow her to feel truly loved.

By Nichola Daunton

Key Facts about Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was an influential Mexican artist known for her vivid and often disturbing self-portraits that explored themes of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society.Additional key facts about Frida Kahlo:

  • She contracted polio at age 6, which left her right leg thinner than her left, a condition she concealed in her self-portraits. Recent research has suggested her disability may have actually been due to spina bifida.
  • In 1925 she was in a traumatic trolley accident that left her with injuries including a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis, and a steel handrail impaled her abdomen and uterus. She endured over 30 operations in her lifetime and lived with chronic pain.
  • Her tumultuous marriage to famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera influenced both her life and art. She depicted their relationship in paintings like Frida and Diego Rivera (1931) and The Two Fridas (1939). New letters released in 2018 provided more insight into their passionate, jealous relationship.
  • She was an avid collector of Mexican folk art and indigenous artifacts and incorporated them into her paintings and clothing. A 2021 exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art highlighted her collection’s influence.
  • In 1938 she had an affair with Leon Trotsky while he was exiled in Mexico. This had a political influence on her art during that time period.
  • She was a dedicated Communist activist and incorporated red flags, revolutionary heroes, and Communist symbols into her work. New research in 2020 traced how her political activism affected her art.
  • Major exhibitions of her work in the 1980s sparked a resurgence of interest in her. Recent shows like the 2021 exhibit in New York have continued to inspire many contemporary artists.

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