This year, we are teaching a series of 4-day portrait workshops with Her Future Coalition, highlighting the life of Frida Kahlo and her work as an artist and activist. The first workshop was held at Rabindra, a jewelry studio in Kolkata, where 16 young women are designers and metalsmiths, proving income for themselves and uplifting their communities. Their stories are all different but Her Future Coalition has rescued them from severe gender violence and exploitation. We also invited the women who have joined the Vision for Empowerment workshops for the past 3 years. It was awesome introducing these two groups of women.
The second workshop will commence at a girls shelter home far outside the city centre, with 6 young women, three of whom are being trained as jewelers for Her Future Coalition. At this home, as requested to protect their privacy, we will be creating Frida-inspired imagery without showing their faces.
WEEK ONE: RABINDRA WORKSHOP
Choosing Frida Kahlo as this years workshop theme was exciting—as I have introduced her artwork in previous workshops with great response—and this year, we dove deeper. Many of the young women at the jewelry center had not heard of her. Now, it’s all they are talking about.
**For those who do not know Frida Kahlo’s story—she is one of the most famous Mexican painters of the 20th century and an international feminist icon. She suffered many physical ailments in her lifetime, including polio as a child and at the age of 18, she was in a bus accident that broke her pelvis, spine and collarbone. She began painting self portraits from her bed, as she underwent multiple operations on her spine. She was politically active and married Diego Rivera, another famous muralist and teacher. They traveled the US and Europe for commissioned work and their love story is deeply embedded in her paintings. Frida’s art is extremely personal, as she used painting to deal with chronic pain and her tumultuous relationship with Diego, who took care of her until she died at 47 years old.
Recently, I stumbled across a rare photo book of Frida Kahlo in a bookstore in Florida. Inside, there were images I had never seen, a few showed her sillier side, and one, flashed a quick smile. This was a rare image of Frida, as most photographs are stoic and serious. She looks powerful, and sometimes, a bit stern. She was very intentional in how others documented her. Her elaborate wardrobe hid her shortened leg and the often bandaged women underneath. She holds a sense of beauty and authenticity that I do not recognize as easily today, in a world of digital image overload. This is the Frida I shared with the young women.
In Asia, and especially India, the selfie culture has taken over, even among the population of women that we work with. Photography has become less of an art and instead, a certain vanity. “Look where I am, how good I look, and what I am doing…every second of the day.” I too am guilty of taking too many fleeting images of myself and the mundane moments of daily life.
The goal of these portrait workshops is to share the story of Frida Kahlo, in all of her brilliance and sadness— how she expressed herself—as an artist, as a political revolutionary, as a lover, and as a person who had endured physical pain beyond belief.
On the first day of class, we introduced camera functions and composition. On the second day, we piled into one room, all sitting on the floor, and I shared her story. It took three hours to tell, with translation between each slide. No one interrupted me. To capture the undivided attention of over 20 young women in a cramped space with a creaking ceiling fan…I knew choosing Frida was the right choice.
The following morning was spent choosing backgrounds, wardrobe and lighting for their Frida-inspired portrait. We purchased dried flowers from New Market and they created crowns. Two woman dressed masculine, to portray the images of Frida wearing a man’s suit. Many chose images from the photo book to emulate.
The day of the shoot was magical. Every corner of the jewelry center was full of women making intentional portraits. They used window light, some went onto the rooftop (recreating imagery of Frida on a rooftop in New York City) and all were focused on their posture and hand placement. On the final day of class, images were printed and they each created a Mexican-style Nicho Box to hold one photo—which originates from the Catholic retablo. These retablos (or shrines) are found all over Mexico and are a fabulous way to display images as a public art installation.
The shrines to themselves (and Frida) now hang semi-permanently in the stairwell at the studio—a constant reminder of intentional art, of exploring pain through imagery and female empowerment.
Soma, lead designer and trainer at Rabindra, said of the workshop, “I have never seen all of the girls see a photo of themselves and feel so beautiful.” Frida’s spirit was flowing everywhere.
PHOTOS BY THE STUDENTS
xo, Sarah Annay