Monday, December 3, 2012

Her Crowning Glory

Frida Kahlo's Diego on My Mind
A woman's hair is her crowning glory.
1 Corinthians 11:14-15

In October 2012, the Art Gallery of Ontario set up photo booths outside of the gallery to draw in  visitors to its new exhibit Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting. You could affix a long, black strip across your eyebrows, to approximate Kahlo's famous "unibrow", take a photo, and then receive 50 per cent off admission to the exhibition on October 27th.

I found this a tad disturbing. I know that previous art exhibits elsewhere had tried something of this sort, specifically having to do with Dali’s moustache … apparently this was very successful and mostly non-controversial. Why is this different, I wondered, because it feels very different.

A woman’s hair is laden with meaning in almost all cultures … sexually, politically, culturally. A great deal of hair is indicative of sexiness, fertility, youth (vedi Bardot or, more currently, Rihanna or Lady Gaga). Big or messy hair can also be threatening (political activist Angela Davis or punk rocker Courtney Love) to mainstream culture - signifying defiance of female docility or resistance to societal norms. Yet, generally, a great deal of hair in many contexts is seen as acceptable, inviting, sexy.

But not when it is on a woman's face; a hairless face is sacrosanct, hair on a woman's face is verboten. Too much is what ... masculine, unattractive, butch? A surplus of hair (in this case, Frida’s unabashed moustache and bushy eyebrows) is atypical in Western culture and, therefore, often the subject of mockery or fun. Frida, a beautiful woman, if unconventionally so, is reduced to a series of "ugly", unfeminine physical attributes.

Despite the prevalence of products to remove hair on females, we like to pretend that this is an anomaly, an aberration in women, at least in feminine women. According to Euromonitor International, a leader in strategy research for consumer markets, retail sales of depilatories reached a total of CDN$199 million in Canada in 2011. I know, I know ... I love a good pair of tweezers myself having been blessed with inheriting my father's generous eyebrows.

We know it exists, we know it’s just part of being human, of being female … we just don’t like it very much in females. 

But ultimately, this small, light-hearted promotion at the AGO is disrespectful. Not only is it disrespectful to her as a woman, but, as importantly, disrespectful to her as an artist. When you take a major female artist who belongs to an ethnicity that seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards facial hair and make that the focus of our interest as viewers of art, it takes on a certain meaning – of derision, amusement, condescension. 


I know the intention was to be playful, to lure into the gallery patrons who might not ordinarily come to an art gallery but it’s very demeaning – the equivalent of having people don fat suits in imitation of Diego Rivera, who, obviously, was a man of expansive girth. Why not do that? We don't do that because it's rude and disrespectful of his talent.

Women come in all shapes and sizes and colours and, yes, even hairiness … when you reduce Kahlo to one aspect of her physicality you are demeaning all the fine work that she has accomplished. Is she just the slightly eccentric Mexican woman who wore peasant dresses, didn’t remove her facial hair and posed with monkeys? Or is she something more? 

Is she also being derided because she painted about "female" concerns - her inability to become pregnant, her physical ailments due to her accident and illnesses, her obsessive love for Rivera, her focus on self-portraits ... does that perhaps add to the dialogue in terms of making her less worthy of esteem?

If she is something more, more than a series of interesting tics and physical attributes, which I presume that the AGO believes as they are featuring her work in a major exhibit, then show it. Prove it. Treat her with the respect she deserves. 


1 comment:

Maria said...

"But ultimately, this small, light-hearted promotion at the AGO is disrespectful. Not only is it disrespectful to her as a woman, but, as importantly, disrespectful to her as an artist. When you take a major female artist who belongs to an ethnicity that seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards facial hair and make that the focus of our interest as viewers of art, it takes on a certain meaning – of derision, amusement, condescension."
Someone finally said it. I haven't been to the exhibit (yet) but I saw some photos online of people posing with the unibrows. It's just so tacky, so disrespectful. I cringe to think of it. What a beautiful woman and painter Frida was. She deserves more.