Travel review: Mexico

As a new exhibition about Mexico's most famous artist opens in London, Sarah Marshall visits her homeland.

Frida memorabilia for sale in a market. PIC: PA

On a residential street in Mexico City’s Coyoacan neighbourhood, churro sellers can’t keep up with the demand for their doughnut sticks. They do, after all, have a captive audience. Visitors will wait for up to four hours to enter a sapphire-blue house in the quiet suburb, and remarkably, some don’t even know why.

Referring to the property’s former resident, one tourist leans over to her friend and asks: “Who is Frida Kahlo?” Ironically, even those closest to the late artist would probably say the same.

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Political activist, feminist and accidental fashionista, Frida gained notoriety for her deeply honest and often harrowing self-portraits, revealing a life of pain caused by a debilitating accident and a heart broken by a tumultuous love affair. After her death in 1954, she morphed into a pop icon, and her image has appeared on T-shirts, slippers, shopping bags and – controversially – a mass-manufactured Barbie doll, a symbol of everything Frida stood against.

Yet for all her confessions, the woman famed for her thick, kohl-drawn monobrow also courted mystery, and a new blockbuster exhibition at the V&A in London hopes to shed light on her work and personality. Featuring items locked away in a trunk for 50 years, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up explores the artist’s life and her love of bloom-embroidered huipiles (square-cut blouses) and velvet enaguas (long skirts with flounces) from Mexico’s Tehuantepec Isthmus, used as tools to disguise her disabilities and worn as a badge of national pride.

Parading like peacocks beneath crowns of fanning feathers, dancers in Aztec costume conduct spiritual cleansings in Mexico City’s central Zocalo district. The throwback to ancient times isn’t accidental; since gaining independence in 1821, Mexicans have become increasingly interested in exploring their indigenous roots, while ritual and superstition are part of daily life.

Founded by the Aztecs in 1321 when an eagle landed on “chosen” marshland, Mexico City was once covered in magnificent pyramids which have since been submerged by churches, skyscrapers and flyovers, used by a sprawling population of 20 million. In parts, there’s no denying Frida’s home city is ugly – but this is also one of Latin America’s richest locales of architecture and great art.

A pioneer of the post-revolution muralist movement, Frida’s husband Diego Rivera was responsible for some of the city’s greatest public artworks – enormous murals depicting the history of Mexico, always with a political message and often with a dig at religion too.

Frida shared Rivera’s Communist beliefs and appears in several murals as a goddess of love or a prostitute – an apt indication of their extreme love-hate relationship. More about the couple’s personal life is revealed at Casa Azul (Blue House), their former home, which now operates as a museum.

Inside, ornaments of a “sapo” (toad) nod to Frida’s endearing nickname for her uglier, overweight husband, and separate beds suggest partially independent lives. In the canopy above Frida’s mattress, a mirror allowed her to paint while bedridden. Along with a wheelchair, it’s a reminder of the physical trauma caused by childhood polio and a bus accident at the age of 18.

Casa Azul has the largest collection of Frida’s work, wardrobe and artefacts. Elsewhere, it’s hard to find traces of her life; at the architecturally striking Museo Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo – where the couple lived in linked apartments for a few years – Rivera’s work eclipses anything belonging to his wife. What does survive of Frida, though, is her defiant spirit and creative drive, which flows through every pocket of the country today.

One of the most active artistic hubs is the Michoacan hilltown of San Miguel de Allende, a colonial jewel box in the central highlands, 300km north of Mexico City. Its beauty, coupled with a reputation for being the safest place in Mexico, has led to hundreds of ex-pat Americans settling here.

Designer boutiques overflow with silk kaftans and more than 120 upmarket galleries are filled with works of modern art, but this is still a proudly traditional community – the sort of place where old men doff their caps when strolling past a church door.

Salmon-pink spires twirl like unicorn horns from the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel cathedral – a view perfectly captured from my rooftop terrace at the Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada. Spread over a series of private houses, with fountains tumbling from private courtyards and flowers climbing stone walls, it’s as close as you can get to living and breathing the Mexican Renaissance – a period of post-revolution glory when creativity flourished.

One of the largest design centres is converted textile factory Fabrica La Aurora, where Carlos Noyola runs an antiques shop. An elderly, genteel gentleman, he claims to have a collection of items once belonging to Frida.

When I visit, he happily opens a trunk filled with origami-folded letters, annotated books and sketches, all supposedly created by the artist’s hand.

Rejected by Mexican officials as fakes, Noyola still protests their authenticity – telling me some of Frida’s close friends cried when they recognised her voice in the disputed artefacts.

Regardless, it sums up the fervour and controversy surrounding Frida Kahlo, even 64 years after her death. In her painting, make-up and clothing, the revolutionary artist was an enigma – but she’s now woven into the fabric of Mexican culture, just like one of her treasured Tehuantepec embroidered designs.

GETTING THERE

Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861; CoxandKings.co.uk) has an 11-day trip to Mexico priced from £2,195 per person, including direct flights, private transfers and B&B accommodation. The trip includes two nights in Morelia, two nights in San Miguel de Allende at the Belmond Casa Sierra Nevada, two nights in Mexico City and three nights in Oaxaca.

For regional departures from the UK, Cox & Kings recommends flying with KLM (klm.co.uk) via Amsterdam. Fares start from £668 economy return.

Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up runs at the V&A until November 4.