Thursday, July 10, 2014

Frida Kahlo's Back: What You Can Learn From Others' Pain


I had already planned my outfit for the day when I realized it was the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo's, birthday. Like me, she suffered from chronic pain and expressed that pain in her art. So, in homage to her, I made a few changes to my outfit, most notably the addition of this bag with her likeness on it.

Ever since then, I've been ruminating on the reasons why those who have suffered a great deal often feel the need to depict that suffering in their art -- and why some people would really rather they didn't.



Kahlo is a woman I admire more and more as I mature. Though she died 1954 (she was only 47), long before I was born, I flatter myself that she and I have a lot in common.

Like her, I have never been a conventional person and have always travelled in "bohemian" intellectual and artisty circles. Like her, I'm fairly outspoken about my decidedly left-wing political and social views. Like her, I must have a creative outlet like I must breathe -- in my case writing, and in her case painting. Like her, I am bisexual and don't find anything odd about that. Like her, I love style and don't shy away from outfits and jewelry that might earn me the label of "eccentric." Like her, I prefer the natural look and have no particular interest in artificially concealing my ethnicity with such things as hair straighteners, heavy make-up, and heavy eyebrow tweezing.

And, like her, I am crippled by chronic pain. 

That pain and its cause -- I was a victim of brutal child prostitution from the age of nine -- have given me a unique voice in my writing, one that I hope has some educational merit, as well as literary merit. Certainly, Kahlo's art, in which she often directly and brilliantly depicts her physical pain, can both teach and enrich the world, not despite her expression of her pain but precisely because of it.


Clip earrings and pierced earring: vintage
But, I admit, I was really just thinking about my new (vintage) earrings when I put together my outfit, with my skirt's pink circles playing off the blush pearls on my ears. Yet, when I look at this photo, I find this clip and pierced earring combo reminds me of the floral and ribbon arrangements Kahlo so often wore in her hair.



I did consciously wear my hair in pinned braids in direct homage to her. If my hair were still as long and thick as it once was, I would wear braids pinned over the crown of my head as she did so beautifully but, alas, it cannot be so.



Her famous braids were one of her more eccentric affectations but we all love her for them, don't we? Of course, the incredible bone structure of her face lent itself to hairstyles that swept her hair off her face.

She was an exceptionally beautiful woman, untamed facial hair not withstanding.


1937
It comes as no surprise that she was a style icon in her lifetime.



And she remains a style icon to this day, all around the world. Any quick internet search will reveal a plethora of very thin, very young, able-bodied models painted up and dressed up in homage to her.

Some of these fashion homages and allusions to Kahlo focus on pretty, flowery femininity, and denude her of her androgynous power and appeal.



Others do a better job of capturing her powerful charisma.

The woman's eyebrows alone have become iconic. 



So it's fitting that I hadn't gotten around to tweezing my eyebrows for a while when these photos were taken, though my brows will never measure up the renegade splendour of Kahlo's brows.



Of course, it's not just purveyors of "high" fashion who find inspiration in Kahlo's style. Offbeat style bloggers frequent allude to her in their own outfits. Here, the Citizen Rosebud pays homage to Kahlo.


Skirt: thrift; Cane: I forget; Shoes: Ecco; Bag and scarf: gifts from friends; Shirt: Denver Hayes
And so do I.



And so do a lot of other women ...


... and men.

It's okay to have fun with Kahlo's style.


It's okay to admire and emulate her style. 



But somewhere in all of this, her suffering is forgotten. People love her, but do they love all of her, suffering included? Or would they rather not think about that part?

I don't think any homage to her should erase or otherwise ignore her terrible struggle with chronic pain, which started after a terrible accident in her teens. Here, we clearly see the pain etched in her face after yet another of the numerous surgeries she had to endure in her lifetime.



It is this thing we have in common -- chronic pain -- that makes me feel most that there is a sort of kinship between us.



She and I know something about life that many of you are lucky enough never to know.



Like me, she spent days, weeks, and months, in bed.



Like me, she found creative ways to cope. Coping is not always simply finding ways to divert one's attention from the pain. Sometimes, we want to face it head on.


Without Hope, Kahlo
Kahlo spewed her pain onto her canvas. I think that she, like me, felt that being able to express physical pain was also a way to find some relief from it. 

I am grateful that she did that. Her art speaks to me in ways it would not if she'd felt she should shy away from such gruesome images in her art. Clearly, she was not concerned about making people uncomfortable. Nor am I. Pain is "uncomfortable" enough; any discomfort viewers of her art "endure" is nothing to the pain she endured.



I'm sure that there were those who, in their discomfort, wished she would paint "prettier" and "nicer" images (and, indeed, she did sometimes, of her own volition, paint great and unadulterated beauty). I'm sure there were even those who convinced themselves that it was not their own discomfort that led them to exhort her to do so. They may well have convinced themselves that leaving her pain out of her art would be good for her spirit and maybe even her body. 

I've had people respond to my writing in similar ways.

I've had people who don't suffer from chronic pain, and people who were not abused as children tell me how I should feel about my disability and the abuse that caused it. They tell me not to be bitter. They tell me only to focus on the positive. They tell me not to write about what happened to me, and not to even think about it. They tell me such that things are "private" and that others don't need to know about them.

They seem to want to "fix" me and my "attitude", by explaining to me what the world is really like: good, moral, happy, safe. They're quite sure they have something to teach me. I don't think it occurs to them that I might have something to teach them. There is a lot that my life has taught me about people and about life -- about reality -- that it would behove people to hear.

But that would be extremely uncomfortable for them, wouldn't it? Better to blame the bearer of truth -- the messenger -- than the truth itself. Better to try to fix me, to disavow me of what I know, than to assimilate that truth into their own world views. 


The Tree of Hope, Kahlo
But, even their ostensibly selfless exhortations to "think positive" are not constructive in helping those who suffer. Kahlo's painting above clearly depicts great pain. But it also depicts beauty and hope. The very title of the work translates as: The tree of hope; stay strong.

As with my writing, her art moves from hopelessness to hope and back again. It is only in expressing hopelessness and pain that I can find some release from and transformation of it. I very much suspect that the same was true for her. Bottling it up, denying it, or not communicating it is not helpful, not for me anyway.



My life is forever affected both by my disability and the abuse that caused it and I've come to believe that I must include that reality in my creative expression -- whether it be pretty pink flowers on a cane, or pretty pink flowers as a metaphor for the brutality of child sex slavery.



It's about perspective, and not just metaphorical perspective.



Sometimes it's about literal perspective too. People like Kahlo and I are frequently prone in our pain.



What do we see from down here?



Do you see what we see?



Do you?

There is both beauty and degradation down here. We can show you things and tell you things that you never saw or thought about before. Isn't that a good thing? If we heeded some people's advice, and just depicted the more saccharine, "positive," safe world seen by those who have suffered less... our art would be the lesser for it.



Of course, we don't just do it for an audience. We do it for ourselves too. Look at this photo of Kahlo in a body cast. Look at all the things she's done to keep her spirit alive. Rather than covering her cast with a blanket and hiding it from others and herself, she has left it uncovered, and she has painted it too. It has become a vehicle for her self-expression.

She has also painted her nails. And she is, as the good Charles Dickens puts it in A Christmas Carol, "brave in ribbons."

And check out all that beautiful jewelry. Does it remind you of anyone?


Left ring: Effy; Right pinkie ring: a gift from Sal; Bespoke engagement ring: Britton Diamonds; Bangles: a gift from Beau
Yes me, that's who!

People who are suffering do indeed do things, like wear jewelry, for different reasons than others might.



Our perspective, both literal and figurative, is necessarily different.



But it's not wrong. It doesn't need fixing.



Even as our bodies are still, we look, we listen ...



... and we think about the world as we see it.



We do indeed see its beauty. It's likely that we see beauty where you never noticed it.


Self Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser, Kahlo
We even adorn ourselves with it. But we don't deny the suffering either. 

Please don't ask us to.


The Broken Column, Kahlo
Try to see things from our perspective rather than trying to "help" us see them from yours.

Indeed, when I've tried to focus only on the positive, rather than letting the positive and negative co-exist, the negative has always taken over and my emotional pain has increased.


Frida Kahlo with her husband, artist Diego Rivera
Those who understand and accept us as we are, rather than as they wish us to be, help make our lives infinitely better. I cherish those who realize that they can learn from my experiences, rather than teaching me to see the world as if I'd never had those experiences.



I know Beau wishes I had not suffered and been brutalized in my life as I was. I know that Beau's world is a darker place for the things he has learned from me about evil. He has learned from my perspective and what he has learned is not always lovely.

But he can handle that. He assimilates my truth into his, broadening his paradigms to accommodate the reality of my experiences, rather than denying what I know of reality so as not to disturb his paradigm. I do so love him for that. I once broke up with someone who kept trying to "fix" me and never thought he might also need some fixing. 

(And, yes, of course I've had to expand and alter my own paradigm since I met Beau too. My world is significantly darkened by what he has taught me about the hateful, conservative, religious world in which he was raised. In some ways, I wish I hadn't come to know about that world, but I'm surely not going to shut my eyes to it just because it makes me uncomfortable.)



Friends who "get it" are friends to keep. This beautiful silk scarf was given to me by a former student who is now a friend.



She knew about my chronic pain and a bit about its causes, so she gave me these hummingbirds, in pink, of course, because I like pink. She is a member of the Musqueam Native nation and, in her tradition, hummingbirds are for healing. 

How sweet was that gift? She didn't try to fix me or change me; she just understood and showed compassion and understanding.

(On a side note, anecdotally, I have found more understanding of my past and my present from Native people than from any other group. My only theory about why this is so is that Native cultures as a whole have suffered so much under colonization that many Natives have an empathy for me than many others do.)



A good view from bed also helps, since those in chronic pain are so often in bed. This is my view from my day bed. Most of it is pretty, but not all of it is.



It took me a while to realize that a good view from bed is important. I get it now and have fully given in to my love of pink.



But ugly things help too.


Many objects have become very symbolic for me. This ugly, sad, little gargoyle has become a sort of metaphor for how I feel a lot of the time. Yet, he's also meant as a kind of guardian to keep me safe, his ugliness frightening away would-be intruders. At least, this is what I'm told was the original purpose of gargoyles on medieval buildings. I like that and have included it in my view.

The nesting dolls? Well, anyone who's been abused severely enough as a child knows a thing or two about the extremities of dissociation, and their role in survival. For now, that's all I'll say. They are a sort of self portrait for me, just as Kahlo's seemingly surreal paintings were self-portraits of her own interior experience.



The creative work we do in our suffering ...


Self Portrait with the Portrait of Dr.Farill, Kahlo
... even within our physical limitations ...



... is a kind of truth telling, as a personal catharsis, and, hopefully, as lessons to the wider world.



As we assimilate our own pain into our art, we are, as one group of scholars on PTSD put it, wiser, if perhaps sadder.



It can't be otherwise. We don't need fixing. 

Do you? That's not a rhetorical question.


Kahlo with her friend and possible lover, singer Chavela Vargas
Don't tell us to smile. We get there in our own times and our own ways. Truth telling is one of those ways.



There is release and relief in the telling -- even if there are those too uncomfortable to hear us.

(I'm linking up with Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet and 52 Pick Me Up at Spy Girl.)
qwerty

10 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post! Thank you.

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  2. Very well said & happy that you shared this. I love all your pictures.

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  3. I think your photography is also your art, as much as writing, because you are using pictures to tell a story, too. And often you can express different emotions with pictures; words are often so connected to our intellect and the analytical mind, whereas pictures can reach a more primal part of our being, or connect with us emotionnally when words fail. Pictures also transcent cultural / linguistic boundaries.

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    1. Thanks. Yes, the visual is a real component of my creative work. Don't forget the outfits themselves too! But also don't forget that my Beau takes a lot of the photos. It's quite collaborative: I pick poses and spots and angles but he takes the photos of me, or most of them. I generally try to pose in areas that are somehow thematically linked to what I'm wearing, and/or what I want to say. Often, though, I don't even know what I want to say until I see the photos.

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  4. I am so touched by your honesty, and relieved to find another who ventures into the darkness.
    I also love the photo from your prone position in the grass. I know something of seeing the world from an unusual position. It seems you are becoming more and more able to express your pain, and also transcend it in your outfits and writing. The more pain we see, the brighter your beauty shines! Keep going. JJ

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    1. Jack, m'dear, I think you really get what I'm doing with this blog so I'm glad you're appreciating it. "The more pain we see, the brighter your beauty shines!" What an interesting way of seeing it. Thanks.

      I'm pretty proud of those photos through the grass. I thought they are a good illustration of what I mean about the altered perspective of the disabled and the abused. It's both metaphorical and literal. Who knew that clover is so beautiful?

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  5. Just to not having the stabbing pain is just sometimes a good day!Rejoice on the day for God has allowed us this day .

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  6. Thank you for writing this and being so free with your experiences and with your spirit.
    You are my newest Pinterest and FB friend. We have much more than our love of Khalo and chronic pain in common;I look forward to learning about one another. I hope you do join the Chronically Inspired art share group on FB and share this blog there.
    Like you, unfortunately Khalo's trauma also began in childhood when she contracted Polio. The illness never stopped after that. I know you can relate to that.
    I look forward to learning more about you and more from you new friend.

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    1. I did join. Thanks for letting me know about it.

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  7. Incredible post. You gave me the best of chills.

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