Prince has just died over a week ago and an iconic jacket that he wore in the film Purple Rain — later given to a hairdresser — is already up for auction. As well, a home he owned in Toronto, during the mid-2000, is now up for sale — one can only assume it is on sale to financially benefit from the interest the icons death will draw to the property. Sadly, it’s a sign of the times.
Maybe that is why it is so amazing to learn about the story of Diego Rivera and Dolores Olmedo, which begins this Frida Kahlo documentary.
Prior to Rivera’s death in 1957, which followed Frida Kahlo’s 1954 death, Rivera requested that his bathroom be kept closed for 15 years after his death. His patron, Dolores Olmedo, not only honoured his wishes, but said that she would not open it for as long as she herself lived, she also included his drawers and desks in this vow. Olmedo kept this promise, making it more than 50 years until the room’s items were seen again. After her death, the Culture of Ministry gained access to these spaces, where over three hundred of Kahlo’s dresses, ornately painted corsets, makeup and medicine (most in pristine condition), were seen for the first time since her death.
Award-winning photographer Miyako Ishiuchi was granted rare access to these iconic personal items and the documentary allows us to witness her journey with them unfold. During Ishiuchi’s two week trip, she spends day after day at the Blue House — where Kahlo was born, married and died (though she did live elsewhere throughout her life). Soon enough Ishiuchi discovers that she is photographing the items of not just an icon, but the belongings of a woman who “led an ordinary life.” And as we discover, along with her, everything, from Kahlo’s uneven heeled shoes (created to compensate for her leg affected by childhood polio), to her expertly mended stockings, and prosthetic leg (she lost a leg later in life), was artfully designed and adorned, as everything she created in her life.
Though feeling herself and Kahlo are the “same person,” Ishiuchi’s resistance, at times, makes it is clear that they are not. At one point Ishiuchi marvels at the sight of a class of preschoolers coming to see Kahlo’s provocative paintings. In Japan it would be unheard of. “It is art education,” she surmises uneasily.
At another time she attempts to impose her own beliefs on an item of Kahlo’s clothing, which any fan will instantly recognize as the piece worn in Kahlo’s “Diego In My Thoughts” painting. Believing it to be restrictive and childlike, she insists that it makes her uneasy. The Mexican curator is confused, sharing the fact that this piece is an important heritage style from Kahlo’s Oaxaca community.
In time Ishiuchi begins to recognize that her own Japanese heritage has shaped her ideas and work, as deeply as Mexico shaped Kahlo’s identity and work. Ishiuchi’s connection to her nation’s kimono helps her to better respond and relate to the importance of Kahlo’s choice in dress. And it is this acknowledgement that finally allows her to more deeply interact with, and capture, the items.
The Legacy of Frida Kahlo does an admirable job in honouring the continued pride and legacy in Mexico’s traditional dress. We learn about the women who expertly craft these sartorial pieces of art. Most importantly we witness how every dress is an act of love, survival, resistance and honouring of their heritage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the founder of The Winehouse Mag.