The Mexican artists works depicted her dreams, pain and feminism but she also understood the power of performance

Its before 10am on a Tuesday but dozens are already lining up outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales, waiting for the gallery to let them into its latest blockbuster exhibition, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Most of them are here for Kahlo, the iconoclastic Mexican artist who died aged 47 after a life marred by disability and whose work inspired by indigenous Mexican culture and tradition depicted her dreams, her pain, her feminism and volatile love affair with Rivera.

But, before they get through the doors, the curator, Nicholas Chambers, is giving me a tour. Chambers is young and this is the first show hes curated at AGNSW. He talks a mile a minute and we barrel through the gallery, discussing whether or not Kahlo who was born in 1907 and who rubbed shoulders with luminaries including Leon Trotsky and Andr Breton was the worlds first selfie superstar.

All the tropes are there, certainly: the signature poses, the favouring of a good side, the carefully cultivated look that eventually becomes a brand.

She was a total celebrity in her lifetime, Chambers says. She was photographed with the regularity more of a movie star than an artist.

We pass a long wall of black and white photos, where Kahlo is gazing down the barrel of the lens, her chin slightly up, defiant and strong. She is in her early 20s and already has in place the aesthetic that will define her: long hair parted in the middle, traditional Tehuana jewellery and clothing the square cut blouse, long skirt and shawl and, of course, the monobrow. She looks dope.

Kahlos father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a photographer. Thats a big part of it, Chambers says. She grew up with photography all around her. She probably saw her own self-image in photographs before she saw herself in mirrors.

In that way Kahlo is eerily reminiscent of those children who know how to pose before a camera at an increasingly young age, thanks to their parents obsession with capturing every moment on their camera phones.

Its a performance in her photos, the way she presents herself to the world, Chambers says. Like Dali and Warhol she understood the power of an image. Thats why she resonates so strongly with young people today, who are trying on an image and identity in front of the camera.

Shes one of the most important artists in modern history, and shes killing it, babe.

Take me to your favourite Frida selfie, I command.

Frida
Frida at the Barbizon Plaza hotel in 1931. Photograph: Lucienne Bloch/The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art/AGNSW

Chambers leads me around a few corners of the small exhibition, to where the black and white photo he loves is blown up on one wall. In it, Kahlo sits in front of a self-portrait, wearing a white top, a black skirt and a killer faint smile. She looks impeccably modern, with a ciggie in her right hand and theres that stare again. It goes right through you; its as if she is the boss of the world, a keeper of amazing secrets and the coolest person at the party all at once.

In this photo Kahlo is in her mid-20s and has just hooked up with Rivera, beginning a tumultuous but lifelong love affair that Kahlo would later describe as an accident.

At this point [Rivera is] the most important modernist in the world, Chambers says.

In the photograph, Kahlo is almost mirroring the pose and look of the painting behind her, in a way that communicates how knowing and self-aware she really is, Chambers says.

At about 10.15am the gallery is filling up, with mostly youngish women. One of them catches our eye. She is wearing a full skirt with red flowers in her hair in homage to Kahlo, perhaps? On opening night there were Fridas everywhere: women wearing embroidered shawls and long skirts, with elaborate headdresses and enormous jewellery. There was a mariachi band and mini burritos but there were no Rivera imitations; no Sydney men with magnificent guts and high-waisted pants and baggy woollen suits. Maybe next time.

Im drawn by this Kahlo lookalike, who is moving around the collection backwards; she starts with Kahlos almost surrealist 1949 self-portrait, which features cactus, a Buddha, a moon, a mask, dried out roots of trees and Kahlo cradling a mini naked Rivera who has an enormous third eye a Jungian textbook nightmarescape.

She looks like she is in a reverie. Go up and talk to her, Chambers urges but there is something about the way she is staring at the pictures that I am loath to interrupt.

I interrupt.

The woman dressed as Kahlo Elisabeth Swampwitch has come all the way from New Zealand just to see this exhibition, which breaks a 10-year absence of the artists work in Australia. I left my three year old, who I am still breastfeeding, at home, she says. Two teenage boys are trailing behind her.

Kahlo means a lot to Swampwitch both her art and her life. When she talks about why, she gets tears in her eyes. When I first read about her, I was 12, she says. My dad was a victim of polio. Kahlo was hit by a tram when she was a child and spent the rest of her life wracked with pain, enduring more than 30 operations. Some of her self-portraits are painted in hospital, when Kahlo was almost immobile.

Self-portrait
Self-portrait with necklace, by Frida Kahlo, 1933. Photograph: Frida Kahlo/Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art/AGNSW

Reading about her life helped me so much, Swampwitch says. I felt such a connection with her. She inspired me to make jewellery and clothing. She dreams about Kahlo often she is a spirit guide, of sorts.

Wait I want to give you something, she tells me. She looks through her handbag until she produces a small stick, like a lipstick, with a Kahlo self-portrait on it. Its a vial of oil that Swampwitch has been working on for a while; she researched Kahlos scent and then attempted to replicate it. It smells like a damp woodland, with a hint of sandalwood and musk. To be worn when you wish to invoke revolutionary energy within yourself and when you wish to be inspired, reads the side of the bottle. Contains pure organic E.Os, carrier oils + magic.

What is it about Kahlo that encourages such devotion? Chambers has a few ideas.

She is one of those artists that people find their way to, not just through the paintings, Chambers says. They come through fashion, style blogs, bios and film. They come to the paintings at the end. Her life was extraordinary but theres a universality to it too. Suffering is a big part of the story and she deals with it in an explicit way through her art.

At the end of exhibition is some rare footage, including one in colour of Kahlo and Rivera in a palatial garden. After all the unsmiling selfies, all the portraits of pain, it is captivating to watch her move with her lover gorgeous and alive. The original bold, charismatic, flame-throwing artist, who takes a selfie better than anybody.

The exhibition of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riveras work is on at the Art Gallery of NSW until October 9

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jul/20/frida-kahlo-why-we-cant-look-away-from-the-worlds-first-selfie-superstar

Frida Kahlo: why we can’t look away from the world’s first selfie superstar
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