When dancer and choreographer Liliana Gomez learned the Heard Museum would be presenting an exhibition of photographs belonging to iconic artist Frida Kahlo, she knew she had to be involved somehow. Gomez first learned of Kahlo from her parents, who moved from Mexico to the U.S. when she was just 4 years old.
Gomez remembers watching her mother strip carpet off the floor and paint off the walls so she could paint bright red walls with green and yellow accents. “Our house will be like the blue house,” she recalls her mom saying. It was a reference La Casa Azul in Mexico City, the home Kahlo shared with husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera.
It’s the house where photographs featured in the “Frida Kahlo — Her Photos” exhibition were locked away until 2007. The exhibition, which opens at the Heard Museum on Saturday, October 31, includes 241 of the 6,500 photographs that are part of the Blue House archive.
The show includes photographs taken by Man Ray, Martin Munkácsi, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Nickolas Muray, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, and others. It’s curated by photographer and photography historian Pablo Ortiz Monasterio.
“My parents taught me a lot about art,” Gomez says. “They collected Mexican art and my dad had a little image of Frida.” Gomez recalls thinking Kahlo’s unibrow was cool, and being struck by the emotion and passion of her paintings. “What in the hell happened to her?” she remembers asking her dad as a teen.
He explained that Kahlo, who lived from 1907 to 1954, had an “interesting and painful life” that included contracting polio and being seriously injured in a bus accident. Gomez was fascinated, and still is today. “As an adult, I just started reading up on her.” It’s a task made easier by the fact that Gomez works at the Burton Barr Central Library.
But lately Gomez has been doing more than reading about Kahlo. She has choreographed four Kahlo-inspired dances, which will be performed at the Heard Museum on First Friday in November. Three were inspired by Kahlo paintings, and another by a photograph of the famous artist.
Nicole Olson is performing a work inspired by a Nicholas Murray photograph of Frida. Elisa Marie Cavallero and Ramon Soto are performing a piece inspired by Kahlo’s 1931 painting titled Frida and Diego Rivera. Kalli Sparish and Celia Duran are performing a work inspired by Kahlo’s 1939 painting titled The Two Fridas, and Elisa Lucia Radcliffe is performing a piece inspired by Kahlo’s 1940 painting titled Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.
“I chose strong, passionate dancers,” Gomez says. Recognizing the work might evoke her own strong emotions about Kahlo, she wanted to have dancers she could trust to share the experience. They’re all dancers with whom she has a personal relationship, and has known for a long time. They’ve rehearsed several hours each week for the past month — mostly at 5th Row Dance Studios in Roosevelt Row.
Gomez describes Kahlo as “an iconic feminist Mexican painter" and “a woman before her time” who challenged the status quo in several ways. She praises Kahlo for painting instead of holding a traditional job, being sexually curious, and keeping her own personal style including unibrow and mustache. “Her art was bright, beautiful, and colorful.”
They’re qualities Gomez has worked on infusing into each dance — through movement, costumes, and staging. Lately she’s been busy making big, bright tissue paper flowers for a panel covered in blue butcher paper that will serve as a backdrop for one of the dances. In some cases, dancers will perform to music from the soundtrack for the 2002 film titled Frida, which explores the artist’s struggles with physical pain and complicated relationships. Marivel Luna Simms and Jessie Simms of Revizor, as well as Andria Bunnell of Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra, will be singing and serenading the dancers.
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The Kahlo-inspired dances are being performed every 20 minutes during the Heard Museum’s Frida in Focus event on Friday, November 6. Look for one inside the Steele Auditorium, another in a courtyard near the museum’s entrance, and another in a courtyard adjacent to the gallery housing the “Frida Kahlo — Her Photos” exhibit. A fourth location has yet to be determined.
The Frida in Focus line-up also includes an artist demonstration by Hispanic potter Ruben Galicia in the Central Courtyard (from 6 to 8 p.m.), performance of “new and traditional underground tropical rhythms” by the band Clandestino, and a Mercado featuring works by artists in a local collective called Phoenix Fridas. With a $10 donation, guests can have their hair braided with flowers by Palabra Collective stylists.
Gomez has high hopes for the evening. “I hope people walk away knowing a little bit more about her, and get the bigger picture of what she did for women artists by challenging the status quo.”
Frida on Focus takes place from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, November 6. Admission is free. Find more information on the Heard Museum website.