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Under My Skin: Emeli Sandé In Search of Frida Kahlo
Singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé made her admiration for the iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo perfectly clear four years ago, when she had a large tattoo of the artist’s face etched onto her forearm.
At the time Emeli had bravely just quit medical school to write her first album. She needed inspiration and saw Frida as a woman who had triumphed over adversity: ‘As an artist it’s the bravery that I wanted a piece of,’ says Emeli, ‘so I feel that her being on my arm is a constant reminder not to be afraid.’
That subsequent first album, Our Version of Events, won Emeli two Ivor Novello awards and a Brit award for Best British Album - and became the biggest selling record of 2012. Now, two years later, Emeli’s writing her second album - and she’s taking time out to re-connect with Frida on an even deeper level. She travels to Mexico for the very first time, to find out more about the artist whose tumultuous life made her not just one of the world’s most famous female painters but a global feminist icon too.
Arriving in Mexico City, Emeli visits the bustling and colourful La Ciudadela market, where ‘Frida kitsch’ is everywhere. The artist’s face is even on Mexican banknotes – a sure sign of the love Mexicans continue to feel for their fiery artistic heroine. Emeli too feels an empathy with the artist; both have the duality of mixed race backgrounds, with Emeli’s parents being English and Zambian and Frida’s German and Mexican.
One of Emeli’s big ambitions since she first discovered Frida Kahlo as a teenager has been to visit La Casa Azul, or Blue House, where Frida was born in 1907 and grew up. It was here that Frida battled the devastating effects of polio at the age of six, a disease that left her with a withered leg. But worse physical challenges lay ahead for this clever young girl from a middle class family. At the age of eighteen she was involved in a horrific bus crash on her way to the finest school in Mexico, where she was a promising student, on track to study medicine like Emeli. In an instant Frida’s life changed irrevocably. Emeli visits the place where the teenager sustained multiple broken bones including fractures of the spine. Only after months in hospital did Frida return to the Blue House to recuperate, again spending months on end in her bed, often alone and in terrible pain.
It’s back at the Blue House that Emeli discovers how Frida turned despair into hope and learned to paint, making self-portraits using a mirror that had been erected above her bed. Emeli is deeply moved by the spirit of endurance that Frida obviously displayed. ‘I think most people under such circumstances would have closed themselves off from the world and become wrapped up in bitterness or sadness, despair’, says Emeli as she scrutinises one of Frida’s early portraits. ‘But she still wanted to create and communicate with the world and tell the world who she was.’
Frida went on to become a committed supporter of communism at a time of immense political upheaval. She also married Diego Rivera, Mexico’s best known artist and the man who encouraged her to keep painting, and was catapulted into a life surrounded by artists and writers. Emeli meets Rina Lazo, who knew Rivera well.
Frida rediscovered her Mexican roots at this time, exploring the country’s culture in her painting and adopting its traditional costume. Emeli is thrilled when she’s given an opportunity to put on one of Frida’s own dresses: ‘I feel like a different person in the dress,’ she says delightedly, ‘it’s powerful, it feels amazing. Makes you feel like a boss!’
Frida Kahlo remained devoted to Diego Rivera all her life, although they both had affairs, divorced and re-married a year later. But it was only when Frida started to live separately from Rivera that she fully emerged as an artist in her own right, overcoming the personal tragedies of illness, pain and loss to create stunningly raw and honest pictures that eventually gained her international recognition.
Emeli describes how Frida’s injuries finally claimed her life at the age of 47. By then she’d exhibited in Paris, New York and – just a year before her death – her native Mexico City. Today her pictures sell for millions and exhibitions of her work are sellouts. But for Emeli, it’s the artist’s breathtaking honesty that’s most priceless - and inspiring to her personally: I’m gonna say everything and I really don’t care what people are going to think of me…it’s just how I need to express myself.’
Directed by Matt Hill for Blakeway North
Executive Producers: Ruth Pitt and Sarah Murch
The Perspectives documentary strand brings together powerful stories and unique insights into the arts from a range of well-known figures. Now in its fourth year, the strand will encompass six films from a rich variety of distinctive individuals offering their take on subjects for which they have a personal enthusiasm and fascination.
Q&A with Emeli Sandé
What first drew you to Frida Kahlo - the art or the woman?
"I was about 15 and I saw her portrait in my high school art class. We weren't particularly studying Frida Kahlo but I saw this postcard of a self portrait by a woman and so it was her art that really captured my attention at first. It was so striking and strong and I was drawn in by that.
"I loved art and love to express myself but I don't have a particular talent for it at all, or the patience. My stuff was all messy and expressive so when I saw this I was struck at how an artist, especially a woman, could tell her story so honestly and it was so immediate it was intriguing and I wanted to know about this woman."
What is it about Frida Kahlo that inspires you?
"I really felt a connection , even before going to Mexico, especially when I learnt more about her life story. There were so many parallels with my own; coming from a mixed heritage background, studying medicine then choosing to pursue creative careers. There were lots of different things that really made me connect to her as a person and have a lot of empathy towards her decision to become an artists. For even though it was her illness that set her on that creative path it was a real mark of bravery . Being creative is great but it takes a lot of courage to say I'm going to dedicate my life to this even if it makes me no money at all. So I really felt a connection with her personal life and her art."
What was the highlight of your pilgrimage to Mexico City?
"Going to her house, Casa Blu, was really special and just being able to spend time by myself walking around her garden really trying to take in her energy and how she must have felt being there. It is full of so many memories.
"For me one of the main things I've taken away is the impression she left on people. We met a couple of artists one had been taught by Frida and one by Diego (Rivera her husband) and just how they spoke about her, how their eyes lit up and that they were so excited just to speak about her legend - to leave an impression on the world like that not just with your art but by the person you are. That was really inspiring for me. No matter what you do you want to leave the people around you with a positive impression."
Did you enjoy the city?
"I loved it. It is very vibrant, full of music bars and art and Frida is everywhere. Te fact that she is so celebrated is a real testament to the country and that they recognise how important she was.
"My tattoo of Frida was a great ice breaker when meeting people in Mexico. In the film an art historian picked apart the tattoo and explained the symbolism; was it religious, bad luck in love. It is really interesting to know what I am walking about with on my arm!"