I haven’t been to Mexico yet. I am travelling there this summer, and when I do I feel like it will be as though I am finally greeting someone I have heard a lot about, but have never met first hand. The images are in my mind long before I board the plane. Mexico has a pictorial identity, which precedes its physicality, and for me, its essence has been drawn up time and time again by the raw force of Frida Kahlo’s imagery. Every teenager lives through some spell of obsession: for some, it’s Brad Pitt; for others, Harry Potter; for others still, it is their un-cool parents’ 60’s vinyl collection. I’ve had several (Harry Potter included), but none as influential as Frida Kahlo.
More than the imagery, the colours, or the subjects on her small canvases, Kahlo embodied to the utmost the very essence of Mexicanism. From her traditional Tihuana dressing costumes, to lying about her birth date in order to make it coincide with the year of the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo was a marvellous, physical display of all things ‘Méjico’. In her art she used the religious ‘retablo’ of Mexican iconography, and her home was populated by an abounding aesthetic plethora of vibrant cacti, saturated hues of cobalt blue and baked sun-orange; Mexican dogs, birds and monkeys, and traditional clay and papier-mâché figurines of Mexican Aztec history and popular celebrations such as the Day of the Dead. I quickly fell in love with this strange unibrowed character. Through her art, and her tumultuous life of accidents, passions and tribulations, I became enamoured with Mexico and all aspects of its history and popular culture, which she so wittily interpreted as a means to channel her suffering and her joy, her terrible encounters with death and her unwavering grasp on life. Hers was a world of fresh fruit and flowers, the motto on the tip of the tongue was ‘viva la vida’, and she was never without loved ones and laughter. Hers was also a world of despair, of morbid decay and extreme physical agony resulting from an accident at age 18 which shattered her body and led to countless abortions; hers was a world of unsettling emotional pain caused by her philandering husband, fellow comrade and infamous mural painter Diego Rivera.
Perhaps they are the naïve preconceptions of one anticipating a land yet to be revealed, and yet it is this eternal dialectic wavering between the vibrant palette of joy and the darkest hues that epitomizes Mexico to me. In my mind, Mexico is a paradox of beauty and ugliness, of an extreme cultural and historic wealth, a dialogue of colour and tradition. At the same time Mexico is a site of crippling poverty, where political strife is rife, where a struggle for survival propels clandestine runaways to risk everything and hop the fence in the search of more promising futures. Like Kahlo, I expect Mexico to be nothing less than, in the words of surrealist Andre Breton, a “ribbon around a bomb”.