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Frida Kahlo, Art and Revolution

01-Jun-2019Ruth Ann Oskolkoff

Some people think art is unimportant to the socialist movement - but Frida Kahlo showed it is essential to the struggle.

Ruth Ann Oskolkoff is an activist with Extinction Rebellion and DSA, and recently published a book of political quotes “Capitalism Must Be Composted.”

Rule #1: Don’t talk about politics. Isn’t that what many of us were taught as a child?

But I just want to ask - how has that worked out for our society? Not fantastic. Our world is facing climate collapse, we see a heartbreaking gulf between rich and poor, and now are faced with a vulgar, self-serving president who is an embarrassment - and a terrible symptom of the systemic problems of capitalist society. All while many of us still avoid political discussion in order to be polite.
But since the last Bernie campaign, myself and thousands of other progressives have joined informal social media networks where ALL we do is live and breathe politics. So when one of my online artist friends was invited to speak at a panel to coincide with the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, I was able to travel to NYC to see it for myself.

The exhibit was called “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving.” It was the first time in the US that Frida’s personal items were displayed - such as Mexican traditional clothing, hand-painted casts, and large cultural bead necklaces. In addition to some of her well recognized oil paintings, there were smaller black and white sketches, family photographs, film snippets, photos of various collections, and letters.

Viewing the displays, attendees got a better idea of who she really was. Although not widely publicized, Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera, were active in the revolutionary socialist workers movement, and in 1928 they briefly became members of the Communist Party. In the 1930s, Frida grew close to Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition’s struggle against the Stalinist perversion of socialism. However, by 1948 she ended up re-joining the Communist Party of Mexico which was aligned with the Stalinist state (see “The Life and Politics of Frida Kahlo,” The Socialist, May 26, 2017.)
In most exhibits, Frida’s radical politics are often downplayed – instead emphasizing her plaintive paintings depicting physical suffering, her feminism, her embrace of gender fluidity (before that was even a phrase), and her visionary realism. But she was also a comrade. And in spite of personal challenges and physical injuries which caused her lifelong pain, she advocated for a world that will benefit ordinary working people, not the ruling elite.

That’s where an exhibition on Frida’s life, her clothes, and her appearances “Can Be Deceiving” indeed.

After soaking in the art and life of Frida, I headed upstairs for a moderated panel, “Permissions of Truth,” featuring rapper Taphari and my friend – artist and political activist Sneha Sinha. Sneha shared about being a local political activist and creating a large online network to promote social justice.
Some would conclude art is a bougie pastime for elitist liberals. Well – it certainly can be. But for others, including Sneha Sinha, it’s one avenue of worthwhile expression – on the canvas, online, or locally. Sneha and many artists like her are not only making art; they are working to build social movements to change the world.

So the answer is yes, let’s talk politics. While eating dinner. Certainly during demonstrations. Even in the art we create, or the stories we write.