They say the best way to meet an artist is through her work. I believe the same holds true for curators. My first encounter with Circe Henestrosa was not in person, but through her 2012 exhibition – Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo – in Mexico City, which I visited in 2013. It was simultaneously bold and reflective, thought-provoking and evocative. Much like Henestrosa herself, whom I officially met in Singapore two years later, wearing the hat of an educator at Lasalle College of the Arts, where she heads its School of Fashion.
Her lessons, far from frivolous, are framed by a panoramic perspective that embraces the nuances and complexity of real life. “When you’re working in fashion, you need to use a 360-degree lens,” she shares. “I want my students to use the eye of the historian, the anthropologist, the archaeologist and the fashion curator to compose the dialogue with fashion. They need to understand that fashion is about dealing with people, as well as garments and objects.”
Henestrosa is currently translating this philosophy into the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) upcoming blockbuster show, Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe, set to open in London this June. “It will be very different from the exhibition in Mexico City, because not only are there more materials, but I am curating with Claire Wilcox, the V&A’s senior curator of fashion, and experts across disciplines, from conservators to a historian who specialises in Frida’s art exclusively,” she says. “Again, it’s using that 360-degree lens to create a full narrative.”
The Mexican-born curator began her career with the British Council in Mexico City, where she masterminded collaborations with artists, including Damien Hirst and Mona Hatoum, to generate dialogue between the two countries. Presenting fashion in the museum context, however, is closest to her heart. “It brings together everything I want to do,” she explains. “Garments are very powerful tools for social-cultural interpretation. They’re a young, cool and accessible medium that offers another way to tell how people used to live in a specific period of time. If you want to engage younger audiences, you need to speak their language.”
Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe is also at the centre of a global trend in the museum world to showcase fashion as art. In less than 20 years, art purists have gone from rebuking (cue the uproar towards Guggenheim’s Giorgio Armani retrospective in 2000) to being bowled over (recall the successful run of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011).
“Fashion designers have a power that artists were not interested in,” professes Henestrosa. “The artists were responding to their art and having more intellectual conversations, while the designers were concerned with how to dress women at a point in history.”
Her interest in female wardrobes stems from her fixation on the role women play in society. “For me, fashion is a way to explore the role of women as female artists and leaders in culture and politics. Dressing up is a part of our daily life and ritual, and can tell us so much about the wearer and her context.”
The powerful style of Kahlo, in particular, is as integral to her myth as her paintings. According to Henestrosa, Kahlo’s construction of her identity through fashion and her disability – she contracted polio at age six, which left her right leg shorter and thinner, and a horrific bus accident at 18 led to further injuries and over 22 operations in her lifetime – are what make her such an interesting and relevant icon today. Her resplendent Tehuana dresses, striking headpieces, hand-painted corsets and prosthetics masterfully masked her physical impairments – but were also a form of self-expression and extension of her art. “With the Trump era bringing back the white male supremacy of the ’30s, it is so important to celebrate the life of someone like Frida Kahlo, who found a voice in a very male-dominated environment in the ’40s in Paris and Mexico,” she says.
The exhibition explores how the Mexican artist and wife of Diego Rivera lived, and overcame her disease and emotional pain through art and dressing up. “She was in the same situation as a lot of women today. She was repressed, disabled and trying to become somebody, not just Senora Rivera. When people look at her paintings, they feel she is talking to them. She shares so many stories with so many different people. All the connotations that we have as women – the virgin, the muse, the prostitute, the mother, the housewife, the bisexual – she represents all of that.”
Inspired by Kahlo’s life, Henestrosa has been concurrently working on a PhD on fashion and disability. Her ambition is to destigmatise disability through fashion. “The irony is that the fashion system can normalise the idea. When Tommy Hilfiger used disabled models on the runway, or when Alexander McQueen customised an exquisitely carved prosthetic leg for Aimee Mullins, the images reached thousands.”
It builds on Henestrosa’s philosophy that garments are more than materials, silhouettes and tailoring, and fashion exhibitions are about widening the cultural conversation and empowering. Something she, as a curator and educator, truly understands.
Frida Kahlo Photo TPG/Click Photos Circe Henestrosa Photo Natsuko Teruya
This story first appeared in Female’s January 2018 issue.