“So here’s another book about Frida Kahlo,” runs the first sentence of Gaby Franger’s Frida Folk, translated from the German by Gita Wolf. “But this one doesn’t feature a single original painting.” Instead, it’s a stunning photo-book that gathers and lovingly analyses the proliferation of Kahlo’s image around the world. It’s a “collection of fun,” as Franger says. It’s also a tribute to our long-running love story with this long-dead woman.
More people probably find it easier to identify an image of Frida Kahlo than an image of something she made, but Frida Folk isn’t here to be mad about the kitsch. Instead, it’s an uplifting look at how her famous face inspires art of its own, making its way from gloves in Chile and tattoos in Barcelona to Frida look-alike pageants in the United States and patterns for ‘Frida’ socks in Verena, one of the world’s premier knitting magazines.
It should seem cheesy: what else would you call the cheap purses printed with her face you can buy off Amazon (which has a ‘Frida Kahlo’ shopping category, no jokes). Yet somehow Kahlo never seems to be degraded, springing at her beholder out of amateur graffiti and embroidered scarves, often halfway way around the world from her home country of Mexico, where she lives and breathes in popular art even today.
Can an image be so authentic, so self-possessed, that it can stay itself regardless of its context? Did Frida generate a true and heartfelt popularity - a genuine connection with those who like her - rather than celebrity? Franger doesn’t write to idolise Kahlo, only to understand and explain why others love her so much. Philosophical detail, critique from art historians and stories from Kahlo's life all arrive unannounced in her lucid and cheerful writing, like a lot of other wonderful detail and insight.
In Boston, an 11 year old wears a Frida amulet because “I think Frida really conquered all her problems with a lot of strength.” Artists explain why her paintings - unique even in her time - form such an important source of Chicano pride in Latin America. Because “she was strong, because she spread joy, because she is beautiful, because she sells well, because we are proud of her - these are the answers I got,” Franger writes of her discussions with Fridamaniacs.
In its chronicle of Frida fan-art from the streets, museums and markets of the world, the book leaves out a big slice of the Frida cult, which lives online. Perhaps that’s where the celebration ends: when ‘Frida filters’ become about us more than her, and dress-up selfies with unibrows and roses never leave our bedrooms. Frida Folk deals only in the tangible - perhaps because beauty lies not only in the eye of the beholder, but also in their touch.
Getting there: Buy Frida Folk from Tara Books, Rs 1500.
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