Lola Arellano-Fryer
Prosthetic Wholeness
I am learning how to navigate the world within a body that is failing me. These lessons include a surprising amount of detritus: vials of blood and orange pill bottles and acupuncture needles and, once, a sternly worded letter from my doctor for missing an appointment I had called ahead to cancel. I have begun to feel suffocated by the objects of daily life. The laundry goes undone, then unfolded; books half-read half-balance, tumble, break their spines and crease their pages. Dust lines the windowsill, object-like in its persistence. These simple truths of mundane existence are both placed on view and obscured in the museum, where objects become a life’s narrative, placed in spotless, dustless vitrines. Numbered and ordered and indexed. Second-degree relics, the objects touched by saints’ bodies. Frida Kahlo learned this long before I did: a broken body requires tools to correct it, to prop it up, to disguise it. Illness is a bodily experience, but it is not constrained to the bounds of the body. See, at the Brooklyn Museum, Kahlo’s prosthetics and painted plaster casts, the jewelry she would wear to direct the eye away from her weaknesses. After her leg was amputated, she scrawled: FEET, WHAT DO I NEED YOU FOR WHEN I HAVE WINGS TO FLY? You! You! Her feet, now external to her body, now beings of their own. You! She painted to capture the experience, bottles of paint and canvases and turpentine and drops and smudges. I write, or try to, scraps of paper and smudges of ink on my fingers. The objects on view at the Brooklyn Museum are on loan from Frida and Diego’s Casa Azul in Mexico City, ordered to remain sealed in a room until fifteen years after her death, and hardly seen by the public until now. Who can blame her? The objects that constitute life in its fullest are embarrassing. Within them is where our vanities, our mistakes, our embarrassments reside. In one vitrine: a bottle of red Revlon nail polish, of a color and brand that Frida had once favored, according to the small accompanying text. I peered through the plexiglass, enraptured by dried residue of polish that remained. The tiny lines between the cracks of paint, transformed into history. (Revlon, I learn later, was a sponsor of the exhibition.) On one wall: ex-votos, prayers painted on tin by nameless autodidacts. They hang together like a choir, collectively seeking respite from the dangers of earthly existence. Inevitably the prayers concern bodies, the easing of sickness or healing of wounds. These paintings appeal to my tenuous faith, at this moment when I seek healing. Where is God in the broken body? What is faith if not finding a place within a constellation of believers, each uplifting the other towards a higher power? Which we might call God, or might simply call each other? The exhibition is about one artist, but it is really about many, the anonymous painters of ex votos and weavers of rebozos, the inventors of prosthetic limbs and the chemists of Revlon. My spouse pulls me across the room towards Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair (1940). Frida sits on a chair in an aggressive stance, dressed in drag. Her shorn hair is strewn across the floor, which covers nearly the bottom half of the frame. My spouse had cut their own hair slowly, long hair becoming shoulder length and then ear length and now shaved on the sides in a cut that better suits their nonbinary self, an existence in that liminal space of gender that Frida explored before we molded language to explain it. My spouse almost cries, but doesn’t. They see the lines between gender blurred; I see the ease with which a body becomes transmuted, appendages shorn. “She’s like me,” they say. “And well, she’s like you. She’s both of us.” She is like me: the child of a white father and a mestizo mother, and sick, and queer, and rebellious. If she is me, and them, who is the self that is left? Self portrait with Self portrait with Self portrait with In her endless exploration of her own image, Frida Kahlo began the process of creating an icon out of herself. After her death, we finished the process. The trouble with icons is that their very function is veneration; they exist as an outline of meaning upon which every supplicant can, anew, ascribe an individual profundity. The trouble with turning human beings into icons is that their complex humanity is lost, and we have to go looking for it at the risk of reifying their iconography in the process. And now we see Frida everywhere, her face replicated endlessly on tacky souvenirs: third-degree relics. I resist participating in her secular sanctification as much as I consume her. (I browse the gift shop, tempted, but leave empty handed.) I cut my own hair short a few weeks later because washing it became too difficult a task. I feel freed from a burden.
“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from February 8 through May 12, 2019.

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