Frida Kahlo in Jozi 2022

An exhibition of “threes”

I made a second visit to the current exhibition at JCAF (Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation) which showcases three works, one by each of three artists: Frida Kahlo, Amrita Sher-Gil and Irma Stern. 

The third in the series of 3 exhibitions over 3 years of Modernist Identities in the Global South.

Three artists, three original works (one by each artist), from three continents, beautifully curated in three darkened, shrine-like spaces.  Each section deals with a different theme which is introduced by a guide. Visits have to be booked as group of ten and are always guided (and the guides are excellent).  In the first space, three massive photos of “place” were the springboard for Kabelo to introduce us to the artists’ different geographical, historical and cultural contexts. Emeka took over in mediating the second space where the artists’ lives and artistic production are further contextualized with photos, items from their collections, videos and replicas of their journals. And then the grand reveal of the original work by each artist  – each work set in a differently and dramatically-staged constructed space.

Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace (1940). Oil on canvas pasted on board. Collection of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Nickolas Muray Collection of Modern Mexican Art

More on Kahlo’s sources and influences  

Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Riviera owned a collection of more than 1000 ex-voto images.  Ex-voto images are like small private altarpieces which are offered up by a supplicant to a saint or the Madonna in gratitude for answering a prayer. This tradition was brought by the Spanish Catholic conquerors, to what is now Mexico. Ex-voto images typically illustrate the potentially fateful event with a description written on the image and a reference to the saint who intervened.  Illustrated below and currently on show at JCAF, is an ex-voto images (an exhibition reproduction) from Frida Kahlo’s collection. It is signed A.C. , dated 10 December 1916, and inscribed: 

HAbiandoma Caido en el Tiro de una Mina , aclamé á Nuestra S.ª De Talpa. y me libro de la Muerte, y en testimonio dedico el presente Retablo 

this translates as: 

HAbiandoma fallen in a mine shaft, called on our Lady of Talpa. and I am spared Death, and in testimony I dedicate this altarpiece

This image seems to depict A.C., wounded and lacerated, but alive, being rescued from a mine shaft in 1916 with the icon of Our Lady of Talpa painted in the upper right corner

Who is our Lady of Talpa?

In 1660 a terrible plague struck in an area to the west of what is now Mexico City and thousands of people died. In this area, in a small remote tin-mining town called Talpa, there was a church which was the home of a statue of the Virgin: Our Lady of Talpa. Because of her perceived power to perform miracles, people began a pilgrimage to the small town to pray to the Virgin to end the plague.  Their prayers were answered and almost immediately people were no longer dying.  Word of the Virgin’s miraculous power spread and gradually pilgrimages grew. These pilgrimages still take place in Mexico today and images of Our Lady of Talpa, like the one seen in the upper right of the ex-voto image above, are mass produced and sold along the routes.

This is an image of a mass produced icon of Our Lady of Talpa many of which are sold along the pilgrimage routes.

A Few Small Nips by Frida Kahlo 1935

The difficulties Frida Kahlo’s faced in her life – health-wise and emotionally, are well-known. She had polio as a child and a tragic bus accident at 18 resulted in multiple operations and a life of pain. She and Diego Rivera had an open but tempestuous marriage. A Few Small Nips 1934 was painted at a time of immense personal trauma for Frida, after her husband, Diego Rivera, (who had never been entirely monogamous), had an affair with Frida’s sister. Frida had read a report in a newspaper about a jealous drunken lover who, on discovering his girlfriend’s infidelity, stabbed her viciously multiple times.  In court his defence was that it was  just “a few small nips”.  Referencing this brutal physical attack and the bitter irony of the attacker’s defence, Frida expresses her own emotional devastation about her husband’s betrayal with her sister in this raw depiction of physical violence and brooding masculine menace and indifference.

Frida Kahlo 1935 A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love)  40 X 30 Dolores Olmedo Collection, Mexico City, Mexico

Transformation and subversion 

Clearly making reference to conventions used in ex-voto and other religious images, in A Few Small Nips, Kahlo has used a banner with text identifying ‘the event’; a banner which, in further bitter irony, is held up by a a white dove and a black dove. To what extent the depiction of the wounds on the miner’s body shown above sparked a way of representing the lacerations on the woman depicted in “A Few Small Nips‘, is a matter of speculation. This wasn’t the first time Kahlo had painted a grimly contorted female body with upper body facing the viewer and lower body twisting away. In Henry Ford Hospital 1932 (or The Flying Bed) (painted on tin) using the ex-voto format, Kahlo paints herself in a hospital bed after a miscarriage.  As in A Few Small Nips, the message underlying ex-voto images is subverted. Rather than giving thanks to the miraculous salvation by saints, Kahlo defiantly and aggressively communicates her own pain and suffering. 

This third and last in the series of Modernist Identities in the Global South is an excellent exhibition and really well worth a visit. The slots for the group tours filled up very quickly but it seems now that there are often spare places on the booked tours. (We had more than 10 on our tour this last weekend.)  Phone 010 900 2204 for more information. And if you need a debriefing session afterwards visit Issie’s Coffee Shop at the Genocide and Holocaust Centre 2 blocks away. Issie’s is open every week day till 3 and Saturdays and Sundays till 12. 

Recent Posts Categories