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Kaite O'Reilly - disability arts online
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Why I think Frida Kahlo is a disability icon: Frida Kahlo on pain and tragedy / 25 August 2014

Bobo Fung in publicity material for ‘The 9 Fridas’, wearing a necklace of a dead hummingbird from Kahlo’s self-portrait ‘A Necklace of Thorns’

Bobo Fung in publicity material for ‘The 9 Fridas’ by Kaite O’Reilly. Mobius Strip Theatre/Taipei art festival 2014

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“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” 

We are working on my performance text ‘The 9 fridas’ and dealing constantly with Frida Kahlo’s defiance in the face of pain and adversity. One reason why I chose to make this text was a desire to reclaim Kahlo as a disability icon and inspiration, rather than the ‘tragic but brave’ mainstream representations of her in more recent years. Before we coined ‘crip culture’ she was living it… I adore her for her refusal to be constrained by what could be viewed at the time as the limitations of her gender and impairment – for the fact she created extraordinary art the likes of which had not been seen before – for her laughter, her anger, her attitude in her paintings – what Andre Breton called ‘the pretty ribbon tied around the bomb.’

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
Frida Kahlo journals.

As someone who also experiences chronic pain, I am drawn to her paintings and the depictions of pain. Sometimes her work dwells, perhaps even relishes, her experience of pain – her face on a wounded deer, the tears and hammered-in nails of The Broken Column, both echoing the martyrdom of St Sebastian. It is something I have addressed in the production of ‘The  Fridas’ – this paradox between her laughing at tragedy (as Kahlo acknowledges in the top quotation),  and presenting her broken body as tragic.

As a Mexican, death would have been a constant companion and not taboo, nor as feared as it is in so many other cultures. In the script I use references to the ancient Mayan belief system which Kahlo quoted in diaries and letters: the sense all has spirit – even the rocks and cacti and hummingbirds – and that death is a natural state we return to after living. As someone who escaped death many times in her life through accident and disease, and who survived an excessive amount of serious operations, ‘le pelona’ – the bald one/Death – ‘dances around my bed at night.’ This is another aspect which I feel has much resonance for disabled people – the body interfered with, the reality of our corporeal state, the closeness of mortality and the joie de vivre that can arise from this awareness.

Our designer Yy Lim and costume designer YS Lee are having the time of their lives working on this Mobius Strip production for the Taipei art festival. In my previous post I reproduced some of the looks YS has created for our figures who are and are not Kahlo, and props appear daily in the rehearsal room, creating delight or pathos.

This extraordinary corset created by YS, exactly reproducing one of Kahlo’s plaster corsets silenced us this week.

To love so fully, to create such masterly art work despite constant pain and managing her impairments, and to truly live until the moment she died… that’s why I call Frida Kahlo a disability icon.

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Kaite O'Reilly's blog has been reposted with kind permission of the writer.