by Sarah Mortimer
The week of October 20, while walking past the Drake Hotel, one of your employees handed me a card that said I should wear this unibrow in order to get 50% off the price of admission to your exhibit “Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.” I am glad that Frida Kahlo’s work is here in Toronto and that you are eager to have people come see it, but I can’t help but think this unibrow stunt isn’t how Kahlo would have wished to be remembered.
An outspoken woman who was a devoted communist, Kahlo was much more than just a black stripe above the eyes. She was, in every sense, a radical. Her paintings, which place strong emphasis on Indigenous Mexican imagery, represent a highly imaginative style and portray women’s experiences in a manner more explicit than any of her contemporaries. Kahlo’s iconic self-portraits include depictions of everything from her imagining of her of her own birth and nursing experiences, to her painful miscarriage and tumultuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera. With no lack of spilled blood or ripe guts on display, they are some of the most powerful images in feminist art.
Yet, when I wear this unibrow, and when I see others wearing it, it doesn’t feel like much more than a silly act of publicity. On Saturday, October 20, the Toronto Star showcased photos of people wearing these unibrows in front of photobooths you’ve installed for the show, and where patrons are encouraged to take Frida-like snapshots in exchange for a discount on the exhibit. In most of these pictures, people are laughing or making funny faces, communicating to the camera that the black fuzz above their eyes is part of a costume and nothing that should be taken too seriously. In one photo, a little girl wags her fingers by her ears and sticks her tongue out at the camera. In another, a man laughs discreetly from behind a hardhat. In each of these photos, the subject tells us that they are wearing the unibrow not in an earnest tribute to the artist and her work, but with a cool and distant irony.
I hate to be a joykill, here, AGO, but since when did celebrating an artist who challenged our ideas of feminine beauty by refusing to change the way she looked involve breaking her down through the implicit public ridicule of her appearance? Over the course of her lifetime and afterwards, Frida Kahlo’s unibrow was viewed as many things–striking, daring, odd, challenging, coy, studied, bold, memorable, and the reason why so many men fell love with her–but never as a city-wide joke. Why start now? (more inside…)