An Extension of the Self: Frida Kahlo and Identity 

Over half of Frida Kahlo’s oeuvre are self-portraits. She famously stated, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Her legacy has famously been associated with feminist movements, and her self-portraits understood through a feminist viewpoint; she reveals her female experience, exploring and celebrating her sexuality, challenging gender roles and standards of beauty, while at the same time recording her experiences with miscarriage. While I maintain that this is an important viewpoint, this article suggests that her works can also provide valuable meaning when understood through a postcolonial lens. 

Kahlo paints herself, but her portraits are often an extension of herself. As she works to explore her own identity, she seems to also explore the identity of Mexico. Her identity is so strongly tied to Mexico, that she changed her birth year from 1907 to 1910 to align with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. She believes herself and Mexico are one in this way, and this belief lingers through many of her self-portraits as she sometimes paints herself as a personification of Mexico.  Kahlo lived during a time of political upheaval in Mexico which led to the revaluation of Mexican identity.

Her work Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States (1932) explores contemporary American cultural colonization. The border that she situates herself in the painting references the border of Mexican territories lost to the United States during the USA-Mexico war in 1846-1848. By applying postcolonial theory to the painting, one can suggest that Kahlo is exploring postcolonial pressures on her society, namely the effects on the identity of the colonized people.

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In the painting, we see Kahlo has painted herself standing between two worlds. On one side, she painted a Mexican landscape. This side of the painting alludes to tradition and religion. Above a pre-Columbian temple, she paints the ancient Mexican gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. It also incorporates the themes of life and death. In the mid-ground, we see she has painted fertility dolls and a head symbolizing death. These are natural forces and the Mexican side is bathed in warm colours and bursting with plants native to Mexico. Here she is announcing her Mexicanidad- identification of her identity with Mexico as a modern nation while recognizing its unique past.

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In contrast, she paints the United States as a place governed by unnatural forces, it is a scene driven by technology and industry. Smokestacks rise into the sky and skyscrapers stand in for the American temple. In a direct comparison, the gods from the Mexican side are replaced by an American flag. Their god is their country and their identity is tied to capitalism. By understanding the comparisons between the two sides this painting can shed light on the dynamics and effects of cultural colonialism.

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To start, she explores themes of exploitation from the colonizers onto the colonized. At the bottom of the painting, an electrical generator draws its power from the roots of the Mexican plants. The United States seems to be developing on behalf of the resources of Mexico. 

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Secondly, the painting shows the complexity of the dynamics of identity and the colonized stereotype. I find the crumbling scene of the temple very interesting. On one hand, it could point to Mexico’s rich history and Kahlo asserting her Mexicanidad. On the other hand, I think it could reflect on the Otherization that occurs toward countries that were once colonized. Typically colonized countries were associated with ideas of primitivism and decay, while the colonizer associated with growth and development. Here Frida seems to be aware of these attitudes and stereotypes associated with Mexico vs the Unites States and provides a contradictory representation. In her painting, the Mexican side is flourishing with life, while the United States is a stark and desolate landscape, surviving and growing through the exploitation of the other country. She is asserting that Mexico is a modern nation full of growth, while also acknowledging its unique history that has shaped its people.

This article was written as a springboard for studies of postcolonial theory to be applied to Frida Kahlo and should be further developed. 

Works Referenced

Havard, Lucy Ann. “Frida Kahlo, Mexicanidad and Máscaras: The Search for Identity in Postcolonial Mexico.” Romance studies : a journal of the University of Wales 24.3 (2006): 241–251. Web.

Kettenmann, Andrea. Kahlo. Cologne: Taschen, 2016. 

Richmond, Robin. Frida Kahlo In Mexico. London: New England Editions Limited, 1994.

Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Art, The Allusions of Self Portraits

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