Discussion of women’s rights, and in particular, the right not to be sexually abused or exploited has gained visible traction in popular media globally. This observation is in fact, so obvious, that it feels facile to even mention the #timesup and #metoo movements. Women’s rights have also been addressed publicly and repeatedly in both the Australian local and global art world in recent years.
Given this, it is a little surprising that the exhibition “Frida Kahlo, her photos,” currently being held at the Bendigo Art Gallery, could be quite so tone deaf. The curation focusses on framing Kahlo’s life in relation to her father, Guillermo Kahlo, and to Diego Rivera in an unsubtle way, so it is perhaps slightly more surprising that reviews of the exhibition have failed to note this.
For example, in one section, which featured images of a selection of Kahlo’s lovers, the following quote was printed on the wall in bold, gold lettering, providing a framing context for all photographs:
“If I loved a woman, the more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait” (Diego Rivera)
Understanding Kahlo’s legacy primarily as a function of her relationship with Rivera, both in terms of her as a “victim” of his whims as well as romanticising the kind of abusive behaviour that this quote alludes to does a disservice to the collection, the exhibition and the gallery. It doesn’t provide meaning or context to Kahlo’s life, it provides the opportunity for her legacy to be reduced to a relationship with Rivera. It also perpetuates the damaging, but conveniently (for abusers) pervasive myth that abusive behaviour is an unshakeable, excusable (however “disgusting”) personality trait that the perpetrator cannot “help” and is therefore beyond their personal responsibility.