Tag Archives: YS Lee

Why I think Frida Kahlo is a disability icon: Frida Kahlo on pain and tragedy

From pinterest

From pinterest

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” 

Frida Kahlo journals

We are working on my performance text ‘The 9 fridas’ and dealing constantly with Frida Kahlo’s defiance in the face of pain and adversity. One reason why I chose to make this text was a desire to reclaim Kahlo as a disability icon and inspiration, rather than the ‘tragic but brave’ mainstream representations of her in more recent years. Before we coined ‘crip culture’ she was living it… I adore her for her refusal to be constrained by what could be viewed at the time as the limitations of her gender and impairment – for the fact she created extraordinary art the likes of which had not been seen before – for her laughter, her anger, her attitude in her paintings – what Andre Breton called ‘the pretty ribbon tied around the bomb.’

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
Frida Kahlo journals.

As someone who also experiences chronic pain, I am drawn to her paintings and the depictions of pain. Sometimes her work dwells, perhaps even relishes, her experience of pain – her face on a wounded deer, the tears and hammered-in nails of The Broken Column, both echoing the martyrdom of St Sebastian. It is something I have addressed in the production of ‘The  Fridas’ – this paradox between her laughing at tragedy (as Kahlo acknowledges in the top quotation),  and presenting her broken body as tragic.

YY's version of Frida's Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

YY’s version of Frida’s Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

As a Mexican, death would have been a constant companion and not taboo, nor as feared as it is in so many other cultures. In the script I use references to the ancient Mayan belief system which Kahlo quoted in diaries and letters: the sense all has spirit – even the rocks and cacti and hummingbirds – and that death is a natural state we return to after living. As someone who escaped death many times in her life through accident and disease, and who survived an excessive amount of serious operations, ‘le pelona’ – the bald one/Death – ‘dances around my bed at night.’ This is another aspect which I feel has much resonance for disabled people – the body interfered with, the reality of our corporeal state, the closeness of mortality and the joie de vivre that can arise from this awareness.

Our designer Yy Lim and costume designer YS Lee are having the time of their lives working on this Mobius Strip production for the Taipei art festival. In my previous post I reproduced some of the looks YS has created for our figures who are and are not Kahlo, and props appear daily in the rehearsal room, creating delight or pathos.

This extraordinary corset created by YS, exactly reproducing one of Kahlo’s plaster corsets silenced us this week.

Designer YS Lee's reproduction of Frida Kahlo's corset for 'The 9 Fridas'

Designer YS Lee’s reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s corset for ‘The 9 Fridas’

To love so fully, to create such masterly art work despite constant pain and managing her impairments, and to truly live until the moment she died… that’s why I call Frida Kahlo a disability icon.

A multitude of Frida Kahlos…. writing across mediums

 

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh at The 9 Fridas photoshoot. Mobius Strip, Taipei.

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, photo shoot for Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘The 9 Fridas’ Mobius Strip Theatre, Taipei.

‘The 9 Fridas’ is a mosaic, a collage of impressions and stories reflecting the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) and the fictional journey of ‘F’ through the 9 Hells of the Mayan Underworld. ‘F’ is accompanied by a chorus of figures who, like her, are and are not Frida Kahlo, but whose stories echo actual events from Kahlo’s life: The betrayed wife, the political activist, the teenager severely disabled in a road accident, the fashion icon, the struggling artist…

Or so my notes in the programme will read when we open in several weeks at the Taipei Arts Festival.

Costume designer YS Lee with Faye Leung and Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, The 9 Fridas

Costume designer YS Lee with Faye Leong and Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, The 9 Fridas

Our rehearsal process continues apace, with a day of shooting the mediatised sections of the production. This gives us a chance to see the aesthetic created by our fabulous costume designer YS Lee, and appreciate the skill of his make-up and hair artists.

This performance script has allowed my imagination full-reign, writing for several mediums. The pre-set is a recorded radio script which will play in the foyer and auditorium before the performance starts. Several sections are filmed, including manipulated Frida puppet dolls, which I watched YS customise, embroidering a monobrow and making Tehuna regional Mexican dress the night before the shoot.

Frida dolls customised by YS Lee, The 9 Fridas

Frida dolls customised by YS Lee, The 9 Fridas

We are beginning to run the full script (or ‘stagger’ as some wag put it last week) , the actors grasping the movement of their journey through the piece. I’m making final edits and our translator, Betty Chen, is making last adjustments to the Mandarin text, which we hope will be published in 2015.

Director Phillip Zarrilli runs an open door policy in rehearsals and there has been a river of academics, actor-trainers, cultural commentators, emerging and established practitioners flowing through the studio. The company and our rehearsal visitors have all said what a gift and luxury it is to have the playwright in the room. Apart from revising the script, I am on call to clarify, to explain and to offer research material – whether anecdote, images, or biographical details. I have been obsessed with Frida Kahlo most of my life – The 9 Fridas is my second project engaging with her work and art – and I have a third on the horizon.

 

Faye Leung in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

Faye Leong in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

But for the present my focus and energies stay with this production with Mobius Strip Theatre Company, which opens 5th September, and is already sold out.