“Tierra entre medio”: Borderlands of Knowledge in the Art of Frida Kahlo
In Caribbean Poetics (1997), Silvio Torres-Saillant argued: “Today most Caribbean literary artists write with the awareness or at least the intuition that theirs is a different world” (66). More recently, he has referred to such artists as “producer[s] of autochthonous meaning” (An Intellectual History of the Caribbean 43). Torres-Saillant’s assertions indicate an important paradigm shift in the field of postcolonial theory, which is related to other debates addressing the need for a conceptualization of the postcolonial experience from a subaltern position.  The reason for this paradigm shift is linked to Edward Said’s observation that the discourses produced in the ivory tower of the western academy, to which postcolonial theory generally belongs, are curiously “weightless . . . with regard to the gravity of history” (303). To counteract this tendency, writers from the south have produced their own concepts rooted in local and regional epistemologies, thus participating in an attempt at epistemic decolonization. Caribbean and Latin American thinkers have been at the forefront of this paradigm shift with the latter in particular appropriating the tenets of the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group to the Latin American postcolonial experience.  It is in this context that I want consider the art of Frida Kahlo, who has become an iconic figure not only in her native Mexico but also among the Chicano/a communities in the United States (Genschow 135), and I shall do so by employing the Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of “nepantla,” developed out of her idea of Borderlands. In particular, I shall be concerned to explore how nepantla manifests itself in the art of Kahlo whose work, like that of a number of other artists and intellectuals, anticipates much of the current paradigm shift.
Gloria Anzaldúa was born and raised in the Texas-Mexico border region. Living in a geographical in-between place, being of mixed-race, having experienced contact with the spirit world, and being of ambiguous sexuality have contributed to her creation of the now very popular and widely-used term, Borderlands. A brief summary of Anzaldúa’s definition of Borderlands can be found in the preface to her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987):
The actual physical borderland that I’m dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S Southwest/Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact, The Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy. (19)
Nepantla is a related concept and a term Anzaldúa preferred to use in her later work because of its more indigenous resonance. It is a word from the Nahuatl language and originally describes, in the words of Walter Mignolo, “the ‘in-between situation’ in which the Aztecs saw themselves in the sixteenth century, as they were placed in between ancient Aztec wisdom and the ongoing Spanish colonization” (“Introduction: From Cross-Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges to Nepantla” 2). In the opening essay of the first issue of Nepantla: Views from the South (2000), Mignolo states that the journal was created in response to the need for “a space of intersection for Latin American, Latino, American, subaltern, postcolonial, and cultural studies” (“Introduction: From Cross-Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges to Nepantla” 1). Whereas nepantladescribes the historical and cultural situation of Mexicans after the Spanish conquest, “Views from the South” suggests a link between nepantla as understood by the Nahuatl-speaking Mexicans and its appropriation by the Chicanos of the south-west United States (Mignolo mentions Anzaldúa’s work among others). Mignolo adds that the concept does not suggest “a happy place in the middle” but “a general question of knowledge and power . . . sealing together modernity and what is inherent to it, namely, coloniality” (“Introduction: From Cross-Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges to Nepantla” 2). In Local Histories/Global Designs (2000), Mignolo employs the term “border thinking” to describe the “rearticulation of global designs from the perspective of local histories” (41) and calls for a need to rethink and reconceptualize “the stories that divide the modern world between Christians and pagans, civilised and barbarians, modern and premodern, and developed and underdeveloped regions and people” (98). In Local Histories/Global Designs, Mignolo calls this form of reconceptualization “subaltern reason,” “subaltern knowledge” or “post-Occidental reason.”Nepantla is one such concept produced by subaltern reason.
Anzaldúa extends the historical dimension of nepantla, her own version of “border thinking” or “counterknowledge” as she calls it elsewhere (Interviews/Entrevistas 266), to include the psychic and spiritual, liminal zones of experience which she regards as essential to the process of self-creation. As co-editor of two anthologies of women’s writing, This Bridge Called My Back (1983) and this bridge we call home(2002), she has reflected extensively on the idea of connection, which is inherent in her concept of nepantla:
Bridges are thresholds to other realities, archetypal, primal symbols of shifting consciousness. They are passageways, conduits, and connectors that connote transitioning, crossing borders and changing perspectives. Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. (“Preface: (Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces” 1)
For Anzaldúa, writers and artists are nepantleras, “those who facilitate passages between worlds” (“Preface: (Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces” 1). AnaLouise Keating calls Anzaldúa’s approach a “metaphysics of interconnectedness” that replaces the idea of difference as oppositional with a relational understanding of difference that “breaks down self/other divisions and empowers individuals to work for psychic and material change on both personal and collective levels” (“Forging El Mundo Zurdo” 521).
Even though Anzaldúa’s idea of nepantla has emerged from the context of late twentieth-century conceptualizations of Latin American history and literature, I argue that the work of Frida Kahlo explores a very similar idea of a “tierra entre medio” and that Kahlo herself can be classed as a nepantlera, someone who, in her art, negotiates between the personal and the political, between this world and the world of spirit. The paradigm shift and the emphasis on autochthonous meaning mentioned at the beginning of this article is in many ways a reaction to an encroaching postmodernity that is felt as a new form of cultural domination of the north over the south. Kahlo’s work, on the other hand, engages with modernism rather than postmodernism, but, as I shall show, it anticipates the concepts we now associate with Anzaldúa’s work. The production of autochthonous meaning is, therefore, not only to be read as a result of contemporary developments in postcolonial studies. Aspects of many current debates can, in fact, be found much earlier. Before discussing the possible interactions between Anzaldúa’s and Kahlo’s work, I want to briefly position them within their respective historical and cultural contexts, the Chicano and Mexicanidad movement respectively.
The Chicano movement of the 1960s grew out of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s. Its objective was the social liberation and political empowerment of Mexican-Americans. The historical roots of the Chicano movement go back to 1848, the end of the U.S.-Mexican War, when the current U.S.-Mexican border was formed, which resulted in a large number of Mexicans becoming U.S. citizens. This new generation of Mexican-Americans faced discrimination on both sides of the border: in the United States, Mexican-Americans were not “real” Americans; in Mexico, they were not “real” Mexicans (Anzaldúa,Borderlands/La Frontera 23-35; Muñoz, Jr.). In the 1960s, the once derogatory term “Chicano” became a symbol of cultural self-determination and ethnic pride. Gloria Anzaldúa is perhaps the most important, certainly the most well-known, intellectual to have conceptualized the cultural, historical, and political position of the Chicano community in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Despite the movement’s many political victories, it was, like many other postcolonial nationalist movements, male-dominated. Many Chicanas felt that the movement was more concerned with social and political issues affecting the Chicano community as a whole rather than with problems affecting Chicana women specifically. Anzaldúa’s work critiques the machismo of Chicano culture, which, she argues, detrimentally affects not only women, both heterosexual and lesbian, but men as well. Her work is, therefore, not only a feminist engagement with the movement but one that addresses the wider implications of gender stereotypes informed by the movement’s machismo sentiment (see also Muñoz, Jr. 174-5).
The Chicano community has tended to look to Mexican history, and the Mexican revolution in particular, for inspiration. The Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), for example, has engaged the imagination of writers and intellectuals on both sides of the border, as has the iconic figure of Frida Kahlo. So, both the Chicano movement and Mexicanidad nationalist movement, which developed out of the Mexican revolution of 1910-20, share a common orientation towards the pre-Columbian past as a way of resisting the overpowering influence of Anglo-American culture.
The Mexican revolution was brought on by a resentment among the Mexican people over the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, whose presidency lasted for nearly thirty years (1976-1911). Under Diaz, power and wealth remained in the hands of a few, which left the majority of the country destitute and dispossessed. The revolution was an armed struggle that united many disparate movements in the fight for a more equal distribution of wealth. The Mexican revolution was characterized by a strong anti-American sentiment, which was the result of heavy U.S. involvement in Mexican politics during Díaz’s presidency as well as foreign industrial investment in the country (Britton 37-60; Dexter, “The Univeral Dialectics of Frida Kahlo” 13-19; Kirkwood 131-53). The Mexicanidad movement sought to establish a cultural identity indigenous to Mexico by turning away from both the country’s colonial past and the overpowering presence of the United States and by reviving interest in popular and folk art forms as well as Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. The movement found artistic expression in the murals produced, most notably, by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros as part of the government mural programme initiated by José Vasconcelos, then Minister of Education. As part of their alignment with Communism, the muralists rejected easel painting, which they regarded as elitist and reserved for the consumption of a privileged few, in favour of an art form that was intellectually and physically accessible to the masses. Characteristically, their work was displayed on government buildings, such as ministries, schools, and hospitals. Though heavily indebted to European and American modernism, Mexican muralism was felt to be an authentic expression of Mexicanness, particularly because it integrated folk elements through which, the artists believed, they had a more direct relationship to their indigenous cultures. The murals were meant to educate the people in the indigenous history and socialist values of the Mexican nation (Lucie-Smith 7-20; 49-68). 
Kahlo herself was very involved with and attracted to all aspects of Mexicanidad. Her choice of dress, the Tehuana costume, was the traditional dress of the Zapotec women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. By wearing it, Kahlo styled herself as a personification of the new nation. She also claimed that her date of birth coincided with the year of the revolution, 1910 (she was actually born in 1907), to emphasize that she and the new Mexico were one and the same (Kettenmann 7). However, like the Chicano movement, Mexicanidad was also dominated by machismo. Despite her alignment with the movement, Kahlo’s art reflects on her marginal status as both woman and artist. In Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States(1932), Kahlo not only engages with her much-debated ambivalence towards “Gringolandia” (the United States), where she and Diego Rivera lived at the time of the painting’s completion. Self-Portrait on the Borderline also addresses an ambiguity that is characteristic of her work as a whole and that encapsulates ideas we now associate with the work of Anzaldúa. At first glance, the painting seems to set Mexico and the United States in a binary opposition that is deceptively simple, if not overly simplified. The left/right division of the painting clearly separates Mexico and the United States. The landscape of ancient Mexico, littered with Aztec idols, featuring a pyramid in the background and lush vegetation in the foreground, is depicted as an epitome of natural vitality and above all rootedness, which, although literally referring to the roots of the vegetation represented, also implies cultural rootedness. The United States, on the other hand, is dominated by industry and technology, which is shown as feeding off Mexico’s natural resources. This critique of the exploitative presence of “Gringolandia” clearly aligns Self-Portrait on the Borderline with the anti-American sentiment of post-revolutionary Mexico. This, however, applies only to the background of the painting. When we look at Kahlo’s depiction of herself in the foreground, a very different story emerges.
The painting shows Kahlo standing in the centre, marking the border between the two nations. She is dressed not in her usual Tehuana clothes but in a pink dress and lace gloves, both of which suggest a rather delicate form of femininity. This is emphasized by her married name, Carmen Rivera, and not her artist’s name, appearing on the stone pedestal on which she stands. The pedestal itself indicates idolization, suggesting the type of femininity idolized by Mexicanidad. This image of womanhood comes to stand for Mexico itself, indicated in the painting by the national flag Kahlo holds in her left hand. In Self-Portrait on the Borderline, Kahlo critiques the stereotypical image of the Mexican woman and woman as symbolic of Mexico by painting herself with a cigarette in her right hand, a subversive gesture that implies masculinity. She wears a pre-Columbian necklace, which, although it aligns her with Mexicanidad’s love of all things pre-Columbian, is at odds with the delicacy of the pink dress and lace gloves. That the flag she holds points downward and is not waved in jubilation or pride suggests Kahlo’s ambivalence towards the exuberant nationalism of the Mexicanidad movement as expressed in the works of her male contemporaries. Moreover, in Kahlo’s painting the United States is represented by images of industrialization, and its urban buildings appear phallic in contrast to the female idols to the left of the picture. It is interesting to note that Kahlo has her hands crossed in front of her; the right hand, holding the cigarette, moves away from Mexico/femininity towards United States/masculinity while the lowered flag in her left hand points towards Mexico. By challenging and undermining normative gender roles, Self-Portrait on the Borderline critiques the notion of woman as symbolic of the mother country, a notion that Kahlo partly, and contradictorily, endorsed by wearing traditional dress and by claiming 1910 as the year of her birth.  Strikingly, but in alignment with much of Kahlo criticism, Self-Portrait on the Borderline tends to be read as an expression of the artist’s homesickness for Mexico during her time in the United States (Kettenmann 36). However, as the above reading has shown, much of her work is a comment on the wider cultural and political context of her time and thus moves beyond the purely autobiographical, situating it in a Borderlands/nepantla space, in this case between the personal and the political.
In the opening paragraphs of Frida Kahlo: The Paintings (1991), Hayden Herrera gives a rather disturbing description of the artist’s work, which often shows the individual in isolation: “She painted herself cracked open, weeping beside her extracted heart, haemorrhaging during a miscarriage, anesthetized on a hospital trolley, sleeping with a skeleton, and always . . . she looks fearfully alone” (3). Kahlo’s art is most famous for its sustained engagement with the self-portrait. Self-portraiture became wide-spread during the Renaissance when the development of the genre went hand in hand with an increasing interest in the human subject. Other factors also played a crucial role in the development of the self-portrait, such as the wider availability of flat mirrors in the Renaissance period (West 164). Self-portraiture has tended to serve the male artist “to affirm his identity as subject, ‘masterful creator’ and ‘tortured soul’, while women have been mostly represented as objects” (Allmer, “Of Fallen Angels and Angels of Anarchy” 16). The portrait of the artist in particular depicts the male artist as special individual, “worthy of representation in his own right” (Allmer 16). Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the self-portrait became a particularly popular medium for women artists. In the first instance, it circumvented the need for live models and commissions. Also, the art of self-representation could be used to explore issues of self-understanding. This, according to some art historians, was historically more important in the art of women than that of men and may account for the emphasis on biography in Kahlo criticism (“Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary”). Above all, the self-portrait allowed the female artist to interrogate, critique, and subvert the decorative femininity of the female figure as the object of the male gaze and cast the female artist as creator in her own right. Both of these tendencies, as we will see, are present in Kahlo’s paintings.
Unlike the communal appeal of the art of her muralist contemporaries, Kahlo’s choice of the self-portrait suggests a deliberate attempt to not only show herself in a marginal position in relation to the Mexican art world of her time but to also distance herself from the muralists’ sweeping historical statements. In spite of her insistent support of Communism, the bourgeois genre of the self-portrait, a form of easel painting condemned by the muralists for being elitist and intellectual, shows her interest in the individual subject rather than the collective. Kahlo’s engagement with the self-portrait can be read as a form of self-understanding as well as a feminist interrogation of the portrait of the artist. But, as we have seen with Self-Portrait on the Borderline, an emphasis on Kahlo the individual is only half the story. Apart from its political content, Kahlo’s work is also indebted to various forms of Mexican folk art, such as retablo ex-votos, of which the artist owned a large collection. Retablo ex-votos are devotional paintings popular throughout Latin America. They represent a way of showing gratitude to God, the Virgin Mary, or the saints for intervening on behalf of the human individual, often delivering them from danger, illness, or poverty. Characteristic of theretablo, a painted ribbon adorns the lower half of the image which records how the divine has acted on behalf of the devotee. Many of Kahlo’s self-portraits feature an adaptation of this ribbon, thus creating a composite form. The use of retablo ex-voto imagery also suggests an interest in the spiritual and a need of the self-enclosed individual, so often emphasized in readings of her paintings, to open up to this transpersonal dimension (Castro-Sethness 21-4).  In this sense, rather than showing the individual in isolation, Kahlo’s art gives a visual impression of nepantla. But before exploring this aspect of her work further, I want to briefly look at another form of the self-portrait, i.e. the extended self-portrait as “an elaborate idea expressed through the self” (“Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary”).
In 1932, the same year as she painted Self-Portrait on the Borderline, Kahlo began a series of paintings that chronicled significant and often traumatic events in her life, creating just such an extended self-portrait.Beginning with My Birth in 1932, followed by My Nurse and I in 1937 and The Two Fridas in 1939, and ending, according to Herrera, with Tree of Hope Hold Firm in 1946, this series is an extraordinary portrait of the artist giving birth to herself. Herrera summarizes the series as follows: “In My Birth Frida is born from herself, in My Nurse and I she suckles herself. Two years later, in The Two Fridas, she would befriend herself; and later, in Tree of Hope, she would save herself” (10). The gloss is interesting and in many ways convincing as far as it reflects Herrera’s reading of the artist’s work, which is largely biographical. Kahlo herself considered My Birth and My Nurse and I to be companion pieces. But the rest of the sequence is random, and other paintings could have been chosen instead.
Herrera’s reading, above all, suggests a sense of closure as well as enclosure: “Frida’s was a self-enclosed world. She was her beginning and her end, her creator, her nurturer and her destroyer. The small formats and the often hemmed-in spaces of her self-portraits underscore this closure” (10). A photograph showing Rivera and Kahlo in their Detroit studio, with sketches of Rivera’s murals for the Ford factory in the background and Kahlo painting her small-format Self-Portrait on the Borderline in the foreground, seems to underscore Herrera’s notion of Kahlo’s hemmed-in spaces. The figures in Rivera’s murals appear to have a freedom of movement due to the large format of his medium that Kahlo’s small canvasses do not offer. By comparison, her paintings appear almost claustrophobic. Ultimately, however, Rivera’s murals are trapped in Marxist ideology to the point that his art becomes didactic, and although his style is recognizably his, in keeping with their ideology, his murals contain little presence of Rivera as individual artist. Kahlo’s work, on the other hand, can actually be seen to transcend closure as it negotiates borders, between self and other, north and south, male and female, personal and political. A reading of the above extended self-portrait should make this clear.
My Birth is often read as a response to Kahlo’s first miscarriage and the death of her mother soon after (Kettenmann 38). Gannit Ankori suggests that for Kahlo the act of painting this and subsequent works fulfils a healing function in that My Birth can be read as a “symbolic rebirth” after the trauma of miscarriage that Kahlo chronicles in her painting Henry Ford Hospital (1932) (38). However, the creation of My Birth also marks the end of Frida, wife of the artist Diego Rivera, and the birth of Frida, artist in her own right. In other words, the paintings show Kahlo questioning traditional gender roles and seizing the tools of artistic creation she previously saw as reserved for the male artist only. One year earlier, in her wedding painting of 1931,Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, she shows Rivera holding a palette and brushes and herself as demure wife. In her 1932 lithograph Frida and the Miscarriage, however, she depicts herself alone, this time holding the palette herself (Ankori 36-8). In this context, My Birth represents more than just an occasion for dealing with personal loss. The painting becomes a political statement: a “radical rejection of all artistic conventions of representation with regard to the female body in general and the body of the mother in particular” (Ankori 38). Moreover, the female artist showing herself in the act of painting is not unique to Kahlo’s work either. It has, in fact, been a popular form of self-portrait used by women artists since the sixteenth century and places Kahlo in a tradition of women’s self-portraiture rather than showing her work to be an isolated phenomenon, as is so often the case (West 171).
Echoing Kahlo’s artistic experiment, Anzaldúa’s approach to the self in the context of nepantla does not insist on any strict sense of closure or separateness and may, therefore, be useful in an alternative reading of Kahlo’s work. In the preface to the section “El Mundo Zurdo: The Vision” (This Bridge Called My Back) and in the essay “now let us shift . . . the path of conocimiento . . . inner work, public acts” (this bridge we call home), Anzaldúa emphasizes the cyclical nature of self-creation, which in turn presents a notion of the self that is in a constant state of transformation, “mov[ing] from the familiar, safe terrain of knowing and being until some experience pulls you into the unfamiliar where you are required to negotiate the self within that context” (Zaytoun 61-2). In the light of Anzaldúa’s idea of relational identity, it is striking that many of Kahlo’s paintings show double portraits, some of which even depict a fusion of two individuals or life forms. One double portrait in particular remains under-discussed: Two Nudes in the Forest, painted in 1939. Interestingly, this work is known under two alternative titles, one of which is The Earth Itself, the other My Nurse and I, which suggests that Two Nudes is thematically linked to the 1937 My Nurse and I (Kettenmann 56).
In My Nurse and I (1937), Kahlo paints herself as an infant with an adult’s head, suckling in an Indian wet-nurse’s arms. This painting, which the artist considered one of her most powerful works, is often read as an autobiographical reference to the artist’s childhood (Kettenmann 47). My Nurse and I was indeed part of what Ankori calls Kahlo’s “Childhood Series” or “a visual reconstruction of her childhood years” (38). For Salomon Grimberg, My Nurse and I emphasizes a lack of bonding, both emotional and physical, with the mother, which apparently haunted the artist throughout her life. Kahlo’s mother was unable to breastfeed the infant Frida, who was instead given to a wet nurse, who merely fulfilled the function of feeding the child but not that of providing mother love (Kettenmann 8-9, 47). According to Grimberg, Kahlo’s childhood was thus “shaped by faulty bonding,” which “laid the groundwork for the unstable structure of her future life” (“With the Image from the Mirror” 21):
She grew up believing that she was not quite right the way she was, that to be more interesting, more desirable, she needed to become another person. Others’ disinterest in her would tilt her vulnerable sense of balance, inducing, in terms of her internal reality, a sense that she could not survive. Kahlo used much of her vital breath attempting to reaffirm her identity in the eyes of others. The performance was mesmerizing, but it entailed the sacrifice of her true self to a mask. (“With the Image from the Mirror” 21)
In My Nurse and I, the relationship between nurse and infant is shown as devoid of emotion, the nurse’s mask and the mask-like stare of the infant Frida emphasizing the distance between the two. Also, while the nurse ignores the child, facing the viewer instead and relegating Kahlo to a secondary position, the infant Frida herself neither looks at the nurse nor at us. The abstract gaze of both nurse and child thus emphasizes a lack of emotional bonding. As a result of this, Kahlo was said to have been “plagued by an insatiable longing for connectedness” (Herrera 14) and tried to recreate, through her art and through personal relationships, “the nurturing experience that she had missed in childhood” (Grimberg, “Frida Kahlos Einsamkeit” 20). This kind of psychoanalytic reading of the artist and her work finds its most recent expression in Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself (2008), edited by Grimberg and based on an interview the psychologist Olga Campos conducted with Kahlo in the late 1940s. The book ends with the medical history and a psychological assessment of the artist that concludes that Kahlo suffered from “dysthymia (chronic disquiet), with recurrent overlays of major depression and chronic pain syndrome, and with substance abuse in a narcissistic personality” (Harris 149). What is more, her “[d]eficits in self-concept and self-integration underlie a central conflict between fears of autonomy and fears of abandonment,” which are, apparently, the direct result of the faulty bonding she experienced in childhood (Harris 149). Significantly, the painting features a retablo ribbon, which, however, remains empty except for the artist’s signature and the date, suggesting that the painting has been emptied of its devotional connotations (Comisarenco 16, with reference to My Birth). Kahlo thus seems to emphasize her sense of isolation and neglect.
Although in her interview with Olga Campos Kahlo herself states that “I am more afraid of being abandoned than of being disappointed” (Campos 101), seemingly confirming the above assessment of her mental state, such a case-study reading disregards the power of creativity to transcend personal limitations and to heal trauma. A psychoanalytic approach, therefore, seems rather one-dimensional, especially when it refers to Kahlo’s paintings as mere illustrations of the artist’s pathology. Recent art criticism and exhibitions increasingly present her paintings in context. The articles in the companion catalogue to the London exhibition of 2005, for example, make a particular point of dissociating Kahlo’s work from the narrowly autobiographical and explore instead its political, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Emma Dexter’s opening essay, for example, compares My Nurse and I to the Surrealist René Magritte’s The Spirit of Geometry, also dating from 1937. Much has been said about Kahlo’s links with Surrealism, but criticism on her work argues that this engagement was not unproblematic (Barson 76; Dexter, “The Univeral Dialectics of Frida Kahlo” 19-22). Despite this, her work continues to be associated with the movement, as in the exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists in Surrealism (September 2009 – January 2010). What Kahlo certainly has in common with many Surrealist artists is the desire to overcome boundaries and oppositions and to blend the real with the imaginary. However, Kahlo’s form of Surrealism does not directly engage with Freudian concepts but rather with Mexican folklore, myth, and history, which aligns it more with Latin American magic realism. Both My Nurse and I and The Spirit of Geometry can be said to represent “the psychoanalytic mapping of the mother/child relationship,” but whereas Magritte depicts a “stifling bourgeois domesticity,” Kahlo adds references to Mexican history and culture that complicate the “Freudian story” (Dexter, “The Universal Dialectics of Frida Kahlo” 20).
My Nurse and I also carries spiritual overtones in that it suggests the traditional Catholic representation of the Virgin with child, yet the face of the nurse is covered with a Teotihuacan death mask (Genschow 103), a clear reference to pre-Columbian culture and possibly to Coatlicue, Aztec earth mother and goddess of life and death. In this sense, the nurse is a “personification of Mexico” (Hardin 59). Terri Hardin suggests that the infant Kahlo enjoys the nurse’s milk “with a satisfied, almost drugged look” (59), but her argument fails to convince. The infant yearns for a connection with both an individual mother figure and the mother culture, but the lack of emotional bonding evident in the abstract gaze of both woman and child indicates that the supposedly nurturing milk of the indigenous mother/culture does not sustain the mixed-race artist. The painting suggests that Kahlo feels rejected as much by the mother who did not nurse her as by Mexico’s indigenous culture, glorified but objectified by the Mexicanidad movement, which equally withheld satisfactory nurturance. Interestingly, the nurse’s left breast is depicted with the milk ducts laid bare as in an x-ray scan. This emphasizes the clinical nature of the relationship between nurse and child, both on a personal and symbolic level. At the very least, the painting suggests that in postcolonial Mexico pre-Columbian culture is no longer accessible in any pure, “unmasked” form, but only within the parameters of Christian discourses (Genschow 103-4). Thus My Nurse and I presents the viewer with two overlapping discourses by showing a lack of intimacy on an individual-psychological as well as socio-cultural level.
If My Nurse and I is a quest for origins, then Two Nudes in the Forest shows a possible resolution of that quest. Again there are two women, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned. The latter caresses and comforts the former, offering intimacy and tenderness in a gesture that is absent in My Nurse and I. The dark-skinned woman wears a red veil from which blood drips onto the earth, echoing the drops of milk issuing from the breast of the Indian nurse as well as the Madonna reference as a whole. The painting, a gift to the Mexican film star Dolores del Rio, is often regarded as an expression of Kahlo’s attraction to women, but otherwise the work has received relatively little critical attention. As in My Nurse and I, the narrative is at once personal and transpersonal. In the foreground, we can see the roots of the jungle which provides the backdrop to the painting. Vegetation is prominent in many of Kahlo’s paintings and is often employed as a “symbol of fertility and regeneration” (Barson 78) as well as a metaphor of male and female genitalia. It also provides a language with which Kahlo reflects on her own barrenness (many of her landscapes do indeed appear barren) and at the same time interrogates the stereotypical association of woman’s and nature’s fertility (Barson 78). On a different level, vegetation functions as a signifier for Mexico as both plant and animal life depicted in the paintings are largely indigenous to the country. Other paintings echo this notion. Roots (1943) shows Kahlo lying on the ground in a rocky area, the Pedregal, in the south of Mexico City. Green leaves grow from her opening body, contrasting with the barren landscape around her. The leaves themselves have small roots or tendrils that seem to seek the nurturance of the soil. It is this very presence of roots in Kahlo’s paintings that creates a bridge between the personal content of her art and the socio-political context of Mexicanidad. In this sense, the distance between nurse and child in My Nurse and I may also be read as a comment on Kahlo’s ambiguous stance towards the more brutal and patriarchal aspects of ancient Mexican culture, such as human sacrifice. Interestingly, the milk ducts of the nurse’s breast echo the vegetation in the background of the painting and are reminiscent of a root system. Thus the lack of nurturance and bonding suggested in the painting extends to the Mexican soil itself.
Two Nudes, on the other hand, represents an all-feminine space beyond violence, separation, and anguish; it is suggestive of a Mexican Eden without Adam. The painting, though, has an alternative title: The Earth Itself. If the nurse in My Nurse and I is a personification of Mexico with all its ambivalent and fearsome aspects, the dark-skinned woman in Two Nudes represents the nurturing aspect of the ancient Mexican earth mother Coatlicue. Both her light and dark elements were originally part of the same goddess. Anzaldúa devotes two chapters of Borderlands to the discussion of this ancient deity. She argues that in patriarchal Aztec culture the dark aspect of the goddess was split off, denigrated as monstrous, and driven underground, and only the nurturing, maternal aspect was revered (49).
Anzaldúa argues that the original duality and ambiguity of the goddess should be acknowledged as it reflects the duality within each of us (Borderlands/La Frontera 68 ff). In My Nurse and I and Two Nudes, Kahlo presents the two aspects of the goddess as split, with the masked nurse representing the fearsome aspect of Coatlicue and the dark-skinned woman in Two Nudes her nurturing side. At first glance, Kahlo’s art work appears to mirror the binary of dark versus light existing in both Aztec and Christian culture. However, this binarism is not as neat as it may appear. Both paintings are referred to by the same title and echo each other in the details I have mentioned. Both are also double portraits. The double portrait is not only an “image of self-nurture” (Herrera 279), but also an identification with – or rather a reaching out to embrace – an other.
The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego, and Señor Xólotl (1949) is particularly interesting in this respect as well as in the wider context of this paper. It shows a more complex arrangement than My Nurse and Two Nudes, the first of which expresses the desire of the artist to be embraced by an other and the second representing that desire fulfilled. In The Love Embrace, both gestures overlap in a double embrace: the other (the universe, Mexico etc.) reaches out to embrace the artist, who in turn embraces her double or alter ego, Diego Rivera. In this context, it is interesting to remember that Rivera was a creole, who in Mexico is someone of pure Hispanic descent. The painting, in opposition to Mexicanidad sentiment, envisions Mexico as embracing both its indigenous and European aspects. The Love Embrace shows Mexico, recognizable by its characteristic vegetation, as the nurturing aspect of Coatlicue from whose breast issues a drop of milk. This, of course, echoes the milk-giving breasts in My Nurse and I. Here, however, the artist seems to have overcome her desire for nurturance and instead depicts herself in the position of nurturer, with the life blood that spurts from her heart echoing the drop of milk issuing from the breast of the earth mother. Echoing the nurturing woman of Two Nudes, The Love Embrace shows Kahlo in a red dress, which again suggests the Madonna. The double embrace of nurturing Mexico and nurturing artist is at once enclosed and transcended by a third embrace, that of the universe itself. The background is split into a light and dark half, representing day and night. This binary opposition, however, is undermined by the appearance of the sun and moon. The sun, associated with the male sun god, is painted red, echoing the female artist’s red dress, whereas the moon, associated with the moon goddess, is the same colour as the sky in the day half of the painting. Kahlo has thus succeeded in transcending the binary opposition of the light and dark aspects of herself, Coatlicue, and the universe at large. She has effectively overcome the cultural split enforced by both patriarchal Aztec and European Christian tradition.
The Love Embrace at once echoes and transcends the wholeness desired in My Nurse and I and the nurturance given in Two Nudes. The painting has a cosmic scope that is lacking or less pronounced in the works discussed earlier. Dexter argues that Kahlo’s late work, to which The Love Embrace belongs, is concerned more with spiritual themes and less indebted to the Mexicanidad movement. Kahlo includes far eastern symbolism into the pictorial language of this phase, such as the yin and yang, mirrored in the interpenetrating light and dark parts of the background, and the third eye of enlightenment opening on Rivera’s forehead. Thus Dexter sees in The Love Embrace a cosmic search for balance rather than a mythic search for origins (“The Universal Dialectics of Frida Kahlo” 28).
The Love Embrace also records a liminal experience. At first, the painting gives the illusion of togetherness and tenderness between Kahlo and Rivera. It echoes the Madonna image. The sleeping Itzcuintli dog, Kahlo’s pet, suggests domesticity. Above all, the embrace itself implies a closed space in the manner described by Herrera. But the dog’s placement on the periphery of the scene as well as its name, Señor Xólotl, suggests another narrative layer. A brief look at the glossary of Kahlo terms published in the London exhibition catalogue reveals that Xólotl is a complex figure in Aztec mythology. An Itzcuintli dog by the name of Xólotl is said to have accompanied the culture hero Quetzalcoatl to the Aztec underworld Mictlan (Barson 78):
Quetzalcoatl is depicted as . . . the restorer of human life through a cosmic dive into the underworld, Mictlan, where he outwits the lord of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, to recover the bones of the ancestors. In this story, Mictlantecuhtli prepares a death trap for Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl falls to his death, but then he revives himself to escape Mictlan, meanwhile revitalizing the bones of the dead. (Carrasco 153)
The myth of Quetzalcoatl is a classic story of death and resurrection, which is found in many different guises around the world. It thematizes the destruction and restoration of both self and community. The mythical dog Xólotl was not only Quetzalcoatl’s companion and protector but also his nahual or animal alter ego (Barson 78). Traditionally, the nahual or nagual has a protective function, a belief that is still alive among the Nahua of today: “If you really want to find your way about in the night, it is the nagual that must show you. You must become the nagual” (Knab 81).
Kahlo and Rivera owned and bred Itzcuintli dogs, Kahlo’s favourite being Señor Xólotl. In keeping with Aztec myth, Señor Xólotl represents the artist’s own nahual or soul guide (Barson 78). However, whereas the story of Quetzalcoatl as culture hero is placed firmly within the patriarchal narrative of pre-Columbian Mexico, The Love Embrace can be read as a feminist rewriting of the myth, a reading which would be in keeping with Kahlo’s rejection of the patriarchal aspects of Aztec culture. Above all, the painting is an enactment of nepantla. It shows a “tierra entre medio” and anticipates Anzaldúa’s notion of “going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world.” In this context, it is significant that Quetzalcoatl’s underworld journey can be understood as shamanic in nature. According to Mircea Eliade, the inititation of the shaman consists of being transported to the spirit world and interacting with the entities encountered there, meeting a spirit guide (which in the case of Aztec culture is the nahual), and being dismembered and reassembled. This experience of total transformation is said to provide the shaman with the power to transcend death and rebirth and to perform similar journeys on behalf of members of his or her community to heal illness or gather information (Eliade 53-8). In the catalogue accompanying the Hamburg exhibition of 2006, one particular essay is of interest in this context. Bettina Gockel suggests that Kahlo’s work is shamanic in nature and that Kahlo as artist enacts the role of shaman. She supports this claim with her reading of Kahlo’s accident, which left her with lasting internal injuries resulting from numerous bone fractures and which Gockel interprets as a shamanic near-death initiation experience in the manner related by Eliade.
Shamanism, however, is only one aspect of Kahlo’s work. The artist’s interest in inbetweenness, doubleness, and the fusion of different life forms is a reference not only to the shamanic practice of shape-shifting but demonstrates Kahlo’s sustained engagement with alternative concepts of self-creation. In light of this, Kahlo’s fantasies of merging with another, with a beloved pet, as in The Wounded Deer (1946), or with her husband, as in double portrait Diego and Frida 1929-1944 (1944), showing the faces of both artists merging into one, are perhaps not so much expressions of faulty childhood bonding but indicative of beliefs according to which the loss of ego boundaries and the fusion with another, especially with the life force of the universe, is necessary to achieve enlightenment (Ankori 42).  This is a concept of self that aligns itself well with Anzaldúa’s reading of nepantla, and with the artist as nepantlera, and is diametrically opposed to the western notion of the individual, which makes it possible to read Kahlo’s work as “an ontological inquiry which transcends biography” (Ankori 43). It becomes instead an exploration of the Borderlands of knowledge; it investigates the spaces where the animal, human, and spiritual worlds intersect.
In this context, it is helpful to remember that Anzaldúa argues: “Nepantla is the point of contact where the ‘mundane’ and the ‘numinous’ converge” (“now let us shift” 549). However, she also suggests that innepantla one is not only inbetween but “torn between ways” (547). Kahlo’s work in many ways anticipates Anzaldúa’s reading of the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui, who when she tried to kill her mother Coatlicue, was dismembered by her brother Huitzilopochtli, god of war and initiator of human sacrifice, making her the first sacrificial victim: “Coyolxauhqui is your symbol of both the emotional and psychic dismemberment, splitting body/mind/spirit/soul, and the creative work of putting all the pieces together in a new form, a partially unconscious work done in the night by the light of the moon, a labor of re-visioning and re-membering” (“now let us shift” 546). This story, of course, echoes the myth of Quetzalcoatl, but whereas the male god and culture hero triumphs in the end, the moon goddess does not. However, this is precisely what makes her an attractive image for feminist thinkers, such as Anzaldúa.
Commentators on Kahlo’s work have suggested that the nurse in My Nurse and I, in keeping with the dark aspect of Coatlicue, proffers the infant Frida as a sacrificial victim (Genschow 104, Herrera 12). If the artist inMy Nurse and I is the moon goddess about to be dismembered, then Two Nudes and The Love Embracerepresent shamanic acts of re-visioning and re-membering. They create a vision of wholeness, at once personal, cultural, and spiritual. By projecting herself outwards to embrace Mexico and her sense of being Mexican in all its ambiguity, Kahlo creates a work that depicts a passage between worlds and arrives at a vision that is at once personal and transpersonal. Kahlo’s paintings thus produce autochthonous meaning and in many ways anticipate the paradigm shift towards subaltern knowledge that is beginning to challenge the way we think about postcolonial theory.
I am indebted to Ian Campbell Ross, who took time away from his own work to read a draft of this essay and made some valuable suggestions.
1.The term “subaltern” has been variously used in postcolonial studies since the early 1980s when the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group began its interrogation of colonial historiography on the Indian subcontinent. The term was quickly assimilated into other areas of postcolonial studies, and while its precise meaning is disputed, it generally expresses a dissatisfaction with a Eurocentric view of the colonial and postcolonial experience and the need to find alternative concepts and modes of interrogation. For a detailed discussion of this topic see Prakash, “Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism.”
2.See, for example, The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader (2001), edited by Ileana Rodriguez.
3.With regard to Zapata, see, for example, “Eyes of Zapata” in Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek(1993).
4.For an in-depth discussion of the position of indigenous cultures in Latin American nationalism see Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (1995).
5.Kahlo is not alone in this. Other Mexican women artists of the time, most notably Maria Izquierdo and Isabel Villaseñor, also made the critique of female stereotypes a contentious topic of their art (see Mirkin, “To Paint the Unspeakable”). Kahlo’s reflections on femininity and masculinity, especially in the context of female masculinity as expressed in Self-Portrait on the Borderline and in a number of other paintings, can be read in relation to current debates on gender, particularly the work of Judith Butler. In Gender Trouble (1990), Butler argues that gender is not natural but performed. In other words, gender is what one does rather than what one is. Butler suggests that certain cultural conceptions of gender have come to be accepted as the norm, i.e. they seem natural in our culture. However, she argues that these so-called normative configurations can and should be challenged. Butler calls for subversive action that undermines the seeming naturalness of gender normativity. Kahlo’s masculine gesture of smoking in public as depicted in Self-Portrait on the Borderline, which clashes with the delicate femininity suggested by the pink dress, can be read as such as subversive gesture. Butler argues that we all perform gender, traditional as well as non-traditional. By choosing to be different about it, we might work to change gender norms and the binary understanding of masculinity and femininity. This is Kahlo’s objective also. It would certainly be fruitful to discuss her work in the context of gender studies. However, I will restrict myself to this footnote, mainly because gender theory is another form of criticism produced in the western academy, and the purpose of this paper is to explore subaltern knowledge expressed in her art work.
6.Edward Lucie-Smith claims that Kahlo was influenced by the nineteenth-century semi-naive artist Hermenegildo Bustos, mainly known for his portraits, still-lifes, and retablos. He was a painter of the “non-heroic” colonial period and thus diametrically opposed in his interests to the Muralist movement, which was anti-colonial (100-101). But Kahlo’s work also frequently refers to European models, such as Botticelli and Velásquez (Udall 10). Whereas the purpose of this paper is to focus on the Mexican influence in Kahlo’s art, it is interesting to note that many of her artistic references seem deliberately opposed to those of her muralist contemporaries.
7.Ankori ascribes these beliefs to the far east in particular, but in my view they are just as manifest in the notion of the nahual/animal self or twin.
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