Curatorial Statement: Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South

Clive Kellner

Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South

(25 October 2022 – 22 February 2023)

Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South presented the works of three pioneering women artists, Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) and Irma Stern (1894–1966), together in South Africa and in Africa for the first time. The exhibition examined the constructions of “cosmopolitan” and “indigenous” identities through portraiture and self-portraiture. It also considered the time and place in which each artist produced their work, and gave some insights into their experiences, inspiration and concerns. This was the third and final exhibition that concluded JCAF’s first research theme Female Identities in the Global South.

Frida Kahlo

The subject of many of Kahlo’s paintings was herself (“I paint myself, because I am what I know best.”) She painted 55 self-portraits that embody, on the one hand, an external Mexican identity known as “Mexicanidad”, imbued with pre-Columbian cultural references and symbols, and, on the other hand, an inner subjective realm arising from several traumatic experiences. Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace (1940) reflects the influence of her mestizo heritage, and the Catholic symbol of the thorns. Kahlo’s complex identity was foregrounded and shown to be a hybrid repository of the modern and natural worlds, and of the religious and the secular.

Amrita Sher-Gil

Sher-Gil has been acknowledged for introducing modernism into India by synthesising Western and Indian influences in her artworks. From 1934 to 1941 she produced nearly 150 paintings, in many of which her aim was to express a modern Indian sensibility, with a particular emphasis on despair and poverty. She progressed from being influenced by the European masters to observing local conditions and applying these to a distinct aesthetic and narrative that spoke to the realities of poor people as she saw them. Three Girls (1935) depicts Sher-Gil’s nieces in a pose that suggests a contemplative melancholy. Although grouped together, the figures feel isolated – a key motif of her paintings of Indian subject matter.

Irma Stern

Irma Stern’s portraits generally fall into two categories: portraits of people in her cultural and social milieu in Cape Town, and portraits of people she encountered during her travels to Zanzibar (1939–1945) and the Congo (1942–1955), which reflect the cultural, social and religious diversity of Central and East Africa. Marion Arnold points out that, “there is a disjunction between Stern’s groups of figures and her portraits. In the former she generalises; in the latter she particularises.” Although Stern was a prolific portrait painter, she never painted a self-portrait, which suggests that she constructed identities of others in order, partly, to reflect her own subjectivity. Watussi Woman in Red (1946) is a portrait of a young woman, Princess Emma Bakayishonga. It is a masterful painting that depicts not only her exterior beauty but also her interiority who appears caught in her own thoughts.

Conclusion

We see in Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern, artists and women who constructed a self through an imagined identification with indigenous women. Drawing from modalities of traditional cultures they created modernising hybrid identities against the backdrop of new nationalisms evolving across three continents in the Global South. These were not artists who reacted against the world through direct political commentary or activism. Instead, they sought to express personal experience as a representation of political realities as they experienced them, but in the process offering various identities as a way of transcending the purely personal. Kahlo transformed her own pain and suffering by representing herself as indigenous icon. Sher-Gil located her identity in the poor and silenced, but in the process helped to formulate Indian modernist painting. Stern evoked the Black body as a translation of her impoverished self-image but at the same time created a space for herself as a pioneer of South African modernism. This exhibition presented a single painting by each of these extraordinary artists that showed not only how they were shaped by the histories that made them, but how they too helped to shape history.

SCENOGRAPHY

The exhibition was designed around three topics: (1) Historical Background (2) Identity Formation and (3) Portraits and Self-Portraits.

Historical Background consisted of three black-and-white images of Mexico, India and the Congo produced as large wallpapers. These places had a profound impact on the work of the artists and their sense of themselves in the world, and introduced the socio-political context in which the artists lived.

Identity Formation featured documentary material comprising photographs, films, diaries and objects. This content revealed a transformative narrative for each of the artists, from childhood into adulthood and from early European influences to an embodied, local, indigenous identity formation. These archives were located within a space surrounded by a semi-translucent curtain. For a moment, visitors were isolated from the rest of the exhibition and could explore three stations, one for each artist. In each station, the imaginary worlds and real influences of the artist came to life, and intimate worlds were in open dialogue with each other.

After visiting the archive section, visitors continued to the final section of the exhibition, Portraits and Self-Portraits, where they encountered three rooms. Each one referenced specific architectural motifs from Mexico, India and Congo and each was painted in a colour selected for the artist: for Kahlo, a blue based on her home Caza Azul in Coyoacán, Mexico City; for Sher-Gil, a red-earth Indian pigment she often used in her paintings; and for Stern, a yellow associated with the vibrant African sun that appears in many of her works. Contained inside these rooms was a single painting by each artist. As spaces of contemplation, the three rooms invited viewers to engage with the representation of these iconic, 20th-century paintings by non-Western women.

Biography

Clive Kellner is the Executive Director of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF). He was Chief Curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG, 2004–2009), coordinator of the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), co-founder of the pan African platform Camouflage and Editor in Chief of Coartnews (1999–2002). His curated exhibitions include Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2022); Liminal Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2021); Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2020); Yinka Shonibare (Camouflage, 2001); and Videobrasil: Mostra Africana De Arte Contemporanea (2000). He also organised Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (JAG, 2007).


How to cite this article:
Clive Kellner (2024), "Curatorial Statement: Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/curatorial-statement-migs/. Accessed 24 April 2024.