If there is one Latina in museums that has inspired so many of us, it would have to be Frida Kahlo. The pain and passion weaved into her paintings tell us stories of her fears and angst, bringing us into the fold of her deepest nightmarish visions. But her work is also a story of survival and perseverance. She’s become a cultural icon and idolized by many. For me, it was her sharp mind and refusal to let polio slow her resolve to be an artist that attracted me to her biographical story probably more than the paintings themselves. I’ve always admired her dual sense of self, of bravado and vulnerability, that appeared to live in harmony in many of her works. What was considered an “impairment” with respect to her very real and physical pain, is also a recurring subject and what pushed her to represent herself in some of the most powerful self-portraits I’ve seen.
After a successful run and many positive reviews at the Grand Palais in Paris, Frida Kahlo was coming to the U.S. But more than that, so was her lover and husband, Diego Rivera (Oh, also a famous artist lol), José Clemente Orozco, and a whole host of lesser-known but equally as talented Mexican artists, both women and men, who found influence in the themes of Mexican culture, the Mexican Revolution, and more. I had to make whatever adjustments necessary to squeeze in a last minute trip to the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas to see the blockbuster exhibition, México 1900-1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde.
I admit that what caught my attention first were the words “Frida Kahlo.” She is a show stopper. But what convinced a broke, post-graduate college student to search Google Travel for the cheapest and quickest flight out of DCA, were the stream of articles reporting how much of a success this has been with DMA’s Latino community, many of them first time visitors. Texas has, no doubt, a large Latino community, and more than that, a large Mexican and Mexican-American community. Should it have been obvious then that this community would come out in full force to see their heritage and culture represented in the works of some of their best artists? Well, in the way that the DMA approached this exhibition, I say yes. I don’t know how much traction the exhibition alone might have had without the strategy the DMA used to promote it, but what is evident is the intentionality of their strategy to focus on the Latino community. The museum held family days (i.e. free entrance) that extended beyond the American family unit of mom and dad, but abuelitas, too. There was bi-lingual signage throughout the entire museum, and a campaign titled, “Yo Soy DMA,” that went into the local community to promote, but also create a relationship with the community.
I’m not Mexican nor are my parents, but browsing through DMA’s hashtag #VivaDMA on Instagram and seeing countless photos of friends, families and all the excited caramel complexioned faces inside DMA pulled at my heartstrings a little. D.C. is very diverse and the Latino community diverse within itself, with the majority being of Salvadorian background (Mexican being second most populous in the area). But more often than not, I’ve been one of the very few, if only, brown-skinned girl inside an art museum at any given time, aside from the custodians. This is something I’ve always been keenly aware of. I wanted to be surrounded by other brown-skinned people enjoying works alongside them instead of alone.
I was the first visitor in line. As soon as I got off the plane I sped walked to the taxi and practically dove into the backseat, thinking the museum opened at 10 am (I had 5 minutes) and without a second’s hesitation stated my destination, “Dallas Museum of Art, please!” I arrived and not a single soul. I approached the doors and a woman poked her head out expecting a question. Confused, I asked if the museum was open and she said 11 am. I am too used to the Smithsonian hours of operation so I was surprised the museum would open so late on a Saturday, but no matter, I would wait. I sat on the edge of their fountain, not yet turned on, and took this time to decompress from my three hour flight. I took photos alone and documented my journey thus far on Snapchat. Then about 10:45 am, a couple came and sat a few feet away.
The couple looked Latino and I wanted to talk to them to find out. I hesitated because I’m not really good at socializing with complete strangers but I got up and walked over and introduced myself. Soon enough I was in deep discussion with the girlfriend, who happened to work at a national park, about the challenges of bringing in Latino visitors to spaces where they do not normally go. The couple, of Mexican background, live about half an hour away from the museum and had come because this was their culture and simply, were excited to see it. The girlfriend isn’t a novice visitor to art museums but the boyfriend was and she wanted him to see this with her.
At this point a large family came and I excused myself to speak with them. This big family, also of Mexican descent, were no novices as museum visitors as well. They knew how important this exhibition was and had called in beforehand to inquire about pertinent information so that they could arrive prepared (and not be among those waiting in the reported two-hour lines). The whole family was excited and the mother even told me that she had encouraged her daughters to dress in full Frida (read: Mexican) regalia but were ambivalent about the idea for fear of being the only ones. Their stylish outfits were, however, inspired.
The closer it got to 11 am, the more people gathered around the fountain and as I stood up to stand in front of the doors, a line formed behind me. I turned around to look behind me to see who was in line and saw brown faces and dark hair, couples and families, teens and their friends. Some clearly dressed for the occasion while others, for comfort. I looked down at my phone and saw that we had a minute left but I would have known that without looking because an excited child closely behind proclaimed it followed by, “Why don’t they just let us in already?!” The doors opened and I was quick to drop off my backpack at coat check and hurriedly get within those exhibition walls where Mexican art hugged the walls and their brown skinned makers acknowledged for their brilliance.
My excitement over a blockbuster exhibition about Mexican artists brought me to Dallas, Texas and I was not disappointed. I wanted to see Las Dos Fridas but I also wanted to see what a museum filled with beautiful brown skin looked like. Perhaps some of you have experienced this before, I know I’m not the only Latino to ever admire a work of art and step inside a museum. But the places I’ve traveled, the museums I’ve visited had yet to show me otherwise. Stepping into this museum with many others like me, just as excited to be there, is an experience I wanted to have. There was so much for me to learn, so many artists I had never known about, whose techniques resembled so many of the European artists I had learned about in undergrad (and who remain the focus of most art history courses).
After going in and out of the exhibition several times, I went to the the store to purchase two postcards and the exhibition catalogue. I realized this heavy book bears the weight of what success can look like when a museum chooses to highlight brown people and their achievements and I proudly carried the additional weight throughout the rest of my trip (and let me tell you, this thing is heavy). Everything about this experience was new to me, but I welcomed the feeling of being in a space where for once, I wasn’t the minority. I might have come to Texas looking for Frida but I certainly left with so much more.
Featured image via Dallas Museum of Art