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Q&A with 'Frida Kahlo's Garden' Curator

Photo for: Q&A with

Frida Kahlo, seated next to an agave plant, 1937. Photo by Toni Frissell, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

“Frida Kahlo’s Garden,” a traveling exhibition opening at 10 a.m. Tuesday, January 29, at the Forest Preserve District’s Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon, grew out of a larger exhibition held in 2015 in New York. That exhibition was curated by Adriana Zavala, an associate professor and art historian at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who specializes in modern and contemporary U.S. Latin and Mexican art.

While the traveling exhibition coming to Four Rivers is smaller than the New York show and only includes reproductions of several paintings rather than the painter's original artwork, the theme is the same: exploring the inspiration Kahlo drew from her home, garden and Mexican culture.

In an effort to more fully explore the origins of this unique exhibit, Zavala was contacted to detail her involvement with bringing these aspects of Kahlo’s background to life.

Here is a Q&A with Zavala:

Where did you get the idea to focus on Frida Kahlo’s home and garden for the original “FRIDA KAHLO: ART, GARDEN, LIFE” exhibit that was featured in 2015 at The New York Botanical Garden?
The initial idea came from the botanical garden staff. Both Gregory Long, the botanical garden’s chief executive officer, and Joanna Groarke, the site’s director of public engagement and library exhibitions curator, are plant people. And they had noticed how intensely Kahlo utilized plant and animal life in her work. While I am an expert on Kahlo, plants and animals have not been my focus. Once they brought this to my attention and shared their interest in Kahlo, the incredible potential of such an exhibition became clear, and I was honored and excited to work on the project.



Typically, art exhibitions feature works of art. But this exhibition is different. How have people reacted to seeing another aspect of an artist’s life?
Of course the original exhibition in New York did include 14 original Kahlo paintings, but it was impossible to secure long-term loans to tour the complete exhibition for five years. Nevertheless, we hope that the exhibition in its current form will deepen the public’s appreciation for and understanding of Kahlo’s unique creativity, her passion for Mexico, and the deep erudition that her works express beyond their biographical themes.

How difficult was it to create the original exhibition?
Because Kahlo’s work is highly prized and her corpus of paintings comparatively small, we were thrilled to bring 14 original works and to show these on the campus of The New York Botanical Garden in conjunction with a beautiful plant exhibition designed by Fran Coelho for the glass house at the botanical garden, as well as the panel exhibition explaining Kahlo’s engagement with the natural world and her deep knowledge and appreciation of plants and animals from Mexico and farther afield.

There is a phrase in the exhibit’s promotional materials that says Kahlo is “considered one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.” Why do you think that is?
She was deeply inspired by Mexican culture and the revolutionary politics of her day, but she interpreted these, along with drawing inspiration from her own life, to create a truly unique artistic style and vision. Her works often spring from personal experience, although they are much more complex than mere biography. And it is her frank and creative portrayal of her own struggles that continues to resonate with new audiences. She also celebrated Mexican culture, which is beautiful, complex and vibrant, and audiences connect with that passion as well.

Do you have a favorite Frida Kahlo story that you stumbled across while researching the artist?
Kahlo created an incredible drawing called Plan of the Casa Azul (circa 1940) for a friend that is labeled in detail in English. The drawing shows how important her home, Casa Azul (Blue House) in Mexico City, was and how she filled it with the art, animals and plants that she loved.

What do you think is her most significant or important painting or drawing?
I was beyond thrilled to be able to include well-loved paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Dead Hummingbird in the original exhibition, but one of my personal favorites is her portrait of the botanist Luther Burbank. It both demonstrates her scientific mind and eye, and also her penchant for the unusual and strange, which was partially inspired by her knowledge of surrealism. I also loved the drawing “The Dream,” which we exhibited which shows Kahlo dreaming of husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera, and of the natural world, as her hair grows into plant-like roots, grounding her flight of fancy in time and space.

Frida Kahlo had physical and emotional troubles in her life after a bout with childhood polio, a bus accident and her tumultuous marriage, divorce and remarriage to Rivera. Do you think the garden and her home were her refuge? And how is that reflected in her art?
Yes, her garden and home were surely her refuge, but they were also important sites of creativity both for Kahlo and Rivera, and a place that they shared and loved together. I believe the expansion and transformation of her family home in the 1940s is a testament to her intellectual and affective connection with Rivera. I think the tumult of their relationship is overplayed at the expense of their incredible connection, which was as much creative and intellectual, as it was passionate and affectionate.

What do you hope people will get from viewing “Frida Kahlo’s Garden” as it travels across the country for the next five years?
I hope they will develop a more complete and complex understanding of Kahlo and her art, and of Mexican culture, which is vibrant, deeply rooted in the Mesoamerican past, but also a living culture that shifts and changes.

Do you continue to work on any Frida Kahlo articles or exhibits, or are there other artists that you are featuring in your work as a writer, curator and teacher?
I continue to be enthralled by Kahlo’s creativity and her long-standing influence in the art world, and I am working on a project that connects her to contemporary artists since the 1960s. I am also a committed feminist whose scholarship is dedicated to bringing an appreciation and understanding to women artists, especially women from underrepresented groups … .


The free, all-ages exhibition will run through Saturday, March 16. Exhibit hours will be Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Sundays, noon-4 p.m. Exhibition panel displays are in both English and Spanish. The traveling exhibition’s stop at Four Rivers will be the first in Illinois and the second nationwide during a five-year tour of the country.

"Frida Kahlo's Garden" is brought to the Forest Preserve through funding provided by The Nature Foundation of Will County. The exhibition is made possible by NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Frida Kahlo’s Garden” is adapted from the exhibition, “FRIDA KAHLO: ART, GARDEN, LIFE,” organized by guest curator Adriana Zavala at The New York Botanical Garden. It was made possible with major funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Karen Katen Foundation, The LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, MetLife Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and Gillian and Robert Steel. It was adapted and toured for NEH on the Road by the Mid-America Arts Alliance.


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