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Frida Kahlo’s art: Ribbon around a bomb

Published: November 9, 2014

‘Frida with magenta muffle.’ PHOTO: NIKOLAS MURAY

‘Frida with magenta muffle.’ PHOTO: NIKOLAS MURAYThe entrance to La Casa Azul. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” — Frida Kahlo

It doesn’t make sense that I relate so strongly to her. Barring the gender, we have nothing in common. She was from Hungarian-Jewish-Spanish-Mexican Indian descent; I am as Pakistani as it gets. She lived decades ago in Coyoacán, Mexico; I live in Karachi, Pakistan. She was a Communist political activist; I am not. I have no uni-brow or a muralist called Diego Rivera as my life-partner. Nor do I live in La Casa Azul (The Blue House). Yet the complex and multi-dimensional Frida Kahlo talks to me and I hear her.

‘Frida with magenta muffle.’ PHOTO: Nikolas Muray

An exhibit of one of Frida’s self-designed dresses

Frase celebre — a famous quote by Frida

An oil painting titled Marxism will give health to the sick.

Frida suffered from polio as a child, had a bus accident as a teenager that left her crippled and underwent 30 surgeries. She had multiple miscarriages and could not have a child. Chained in that crippled body was a feisty uninhibited spirit, who said “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Her restrictions were very real. But within those restraints, she lived life to the fullest and asserted who she was. And this is the bond between Frida and so many women throughout the world who have no commonalities on a superficial level. But somewhere, in a parallel world, they hear each other. The chains maybe different, but for most women, they are there. And when they soar as high as they can, while tied to the ground, that’s the point where they meet Frida.

For art enthusiasts and Frida lovers, La Casa Azul is a must-do on the bucket list. Now that I was in Mexico City for a conference, how could I go back without visiting her home? Luckily, I met an American and a South African woman who were equally eager to go there too. The eclectic nature of this troika did justice to Frida, who embodied as much diversity within herself — equal parts muse, artist, writer, fashionista, lover, activist and saint. I tried speaking my broken Spanish to give directions to the taxi driver but he understood nothing. Eventually, I just ended up saying, “Frida” and he knew where to take us.

A display of creative footwear

A prosthesis from the exhibition ‘Appearances can be deceiving’

A papier-mache sculpture on display that symbolises an empty womb

La Casa Azul is snuggled away in a darling neighbourhood called Coyoacán in Mexico City. It is also known as Museo Frida Kahlo, as it was converted into a museum in 1958. Even on a weekday afternoon during lunchtime, there was a long queue of Kahlo-enthusiasts outside on the street. The one hour wait allowed us to explore the Colonia del Carmen neighbourhood. The vibrantly painted yellow, orange and blue homes, hand-painted addresses on heavy wooden doors, and imperfect but beautiful architecture — this had to be Frida’s street.

Our homes are places where bits of our souls rest in our belongings and our choices. The walls of our rooms witness our inner turmoil and the doors hear our laughter. A part of us lives in our homes even when we are not there. “Her feel is so much alive in this house” is what one of my two companions said as we entered. This is her ancestral home where she was born, where she lived part of her married life with Diego, and where she died.

The house, built around a sprawling courtyard, has cobalt-blue walls, small fountains and a lot of plantation. It is creative yet simple, and is very obviously conducive to art.

The wheelchair that helped Frida get around

Farida’s workstation

The yellow kitchen

The museum showcases most of Frida’s work. In her lifetime, she produced over 140 paintings, and 55 of these are self-portraits. Clearly in touch with herself, she had once said “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Her paintings are, thus, her biography. Some seemingly unfinished paintings show faceless children, and some almost grotesque sculptures show an empty-wombed hollow woman. Here, Frida shares her unfulfilled desire of motherhood. While many see her work as surrealist, she had vehemently called her work her reality. French writer and poet André Breton had once described Frida Kahlo’s art as a “ribbon around a bomb”. That is also a very apt description of Frida herself.

While her art equipment have a strange glamour to them as one realises that these are the paints, brushes and canvas-holders which helped her create her lasting pieces, other belongings like her wheelchair and crutches also make one sense her disabilities. No matter how much we celebrate her disability as part and parcel of the great artist, and no matter how much she fought it with bravery, it must not have been an easy life. No matter, how emblematic, original and ethnic her ensembles are, but at the end of the day her wardrobe includes corsets, leg immobilisers, prosthesis and special shoes. It must have been tough to be in Frida’s shoes.

Her choices were not run-of-the-mill either. She loved Diego for his art and his mind, and it was a difficult on-again, off-again relationship. But they were each other’s muses. While she and her terribly gifted husband were intensely in love, Diego could never pledge fidelity, though he promised her loyalty. Loyalty, as Frida once said, was more important to her than fidelity.

The Pakistani woman today is in a transitional flux. She admires Ismat Chughtai but is also solidly rooted in tradition, sometimes out of coercion and at others as an informed choice. She is complex, and learning, and evolving. She is coming of age. She is paying the prices for her choices. Yet, she is living a full life, or at least trying to. Frida Kahlo, in her own unique way, did the same. She exemplified, somehow, what mystic teachings say — that none of us is perfect, yet there is so much perfect in each of us. She once said, “I think that little by little I’ll be able to solve my problems and survive.” That is what all of us are trying to do, every day of our lives.

Farahnaz Zahidi is a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 9th, 2014.

Why there’s a need to step up the worry in Pakistan

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation – Wed, 18 Jun 2014 12:30 GMT

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Women wearing dresses and high heels ride bicycles down a street in Mexico City on March 9, 2013REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya

Stepping outside the hotel on my first day in Mexico for the recentWorld Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, I noticed rows of rental bicycles parked in a designated area. Lots of bikers could be seen along the Paseo de la Reforma, casually picking up bicycles to borrow and then park at another public cycle stand in the city.

A trailblazer project, Ecobici was launched in Mexico in 2010. Such initiatives aim to fight emission pollution in big cities.

But in Pakistan, where I come from, carbon emissions are still not a big enough problem for most people to worry about. We continue to marvel at clear skies when we travel abroad and complain about the musty pollution looming above Karachi when we land back home. Yet, we refuse to car pool. In a quest for personal space in our private cars, we often forget that we are negatively impacting the collective space, the environment we have a responsibility towards.

Mexico was teeming with parliamentarians from all over the world during the three-day summit organised by GLOBE International this month, the largest gathering to date of lawmakers on sustainable development issues. Altogether, 290 legislators from 70 countries showed up to try to find ways to address the dangers of climate change.

Not all of them stayed the whole time. “India’s legislators just came for one-and-a-half days because oath-takings are going on in India. But they came because India must be represented. It’s too important an issue,” said Narayani Ganesh, a journalist from India.

As the only Pakistani journalist at the gathering, I kept searching for the few Pakistani legislators that were supposed to come. But I found out they had canceled their plans at the last minute. The much-needed sense of urgency somehow seemed to be missing.


A recent drastic cut in Pakistan´s budget for environmental issues is worrisome. The amount allocated in the recent budget for the Climate Change Division was reduced to Rs. 25 million ($254,000) in the 2014-15 fiscal year, from Rs. 58 million ($590,000) last year.

This is despite the Global Climate Risk Index 2014 stating that Pakistan was the third most vulnerable country to direct and indirect impacts of climate change in 2012.

Standard and Poor’s report on financial risks associated with climate change, released last month, also warned that climate change could have a big impact on the creditworthiness, economic growth and external and public finances of many countries.

Weather patterns in Pakistan are becoming more and more erratic. Frequent droughts or floods end up undermining the export base, and the adequacy of foreign reserves may become threatened as trade imbalances rise, the Standard and Poor’s report says.

This can cut the value of national currency, and could result in rising inflation, among other problems.

“Should episodes of bad harvests increase, emergency food imports may be required, once again putting pressure on the country’s external accounts,” the report warned. It classifies Pakistan as “vulnerable” – but that forgets Tharparkar, a southern desert district of Pakistan which this spring has suffered a worst-in-a-decade drought and deaths from hunger.

According to the United Nations, global temperatures are likely to warm by another 0.3 to 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. Hollywood flicks about an impending climate change induced apocalypse might not be as far-fetched as we think. And experts are worried.

“There are countries disappearing beneath the sea. There is no time left,” said John Gummer, a member of the UK House of Lords and president of Globe International.

He praised the Vatican for highlighting the impact of climate change on the poor in particular. Perhaps it is now time for Muslim religious leaders to promote that message, because their voice is heard loud and clear by the masses.

The threats are big ones. As a summary for policymakers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year notes, “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change.” Discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age, and disability also can increase vulnerability.

This is where women and children come in. “Bangladesh has made special plans to insulate women against the impacts of climate change,” said Mahbub Ara Begum, a member of parliament from Bangladesh. “Have you heard of our Ekti Bari Ekti Khamar (One house one farm) programme?” The programme helps safeguard some of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable, such as poor women-headed households in rural areas and landless people.

During disastrous floods in 2010, many in Pakistan were driven from their homes and some have become landless. Urban populations initially donated whole-heartedly for those hit by flooding, but now complain about how “they” are crowding the cities.

Small initiatives are promised each year, few are implemented. This month, Pakistan’s government said it will introduce legislation to help remove embankments alongside the River Indus, to help ease pressure on areas that are flooded each year. What will come of it remains to be seen.

Climate change affects lives, livelihoods, health, ecosystems, economies, societies, cultures and services. And “the more we wait, the more difficult it will be” to address it, said Jean-Paul van Ypersele, the IPCC’s vice chair, at the Mexico gathering.

It’s time everyone took it seriously – even if only out of concern for how it can impact Pakistan’s economy. The risk is if it is considered only a “development issue”, climate change won’t get the attention it deserves.

Farahnaz Zahidi is a journalist and writer based in Karachi, Pakistan, for The Express Tribune newspaper. She writes on a range of issues including human rights, women, peacebuilding and Islam.