The best thing about art is that shocked moment of surprise it can give, when you know that suddenly your world is being tilted on its axis and you’re seeing it differently. It’s moments like those that I’ve always aimed for as a poet or novelist (or teacher, for that matter) and Frida Kahlo does it, for me, better than anyone else.
She’s one of the few modern painters who makes you laugh out loud in the gallery: it might be because she’s given herself the first unibrow in art, or because she’s posing with a monkey on her shoulder. Her humour gives you the sense that she is not taking herself or her art too seriously, which is something I cherish: art is important, but nowhere near as important as many other things.
I also love the way that she manages her identities: she had a German father and a Mexican mother, and she lived for a while in the USA. Out of those different elements she creates something wonderfully new that combines the best of all of them. I never much liked the England I grew up in, finding it claustrophobic and narrow in its horizons; I left early and since then have lived in Europe, Latin America, the USA, and the Middle East, and I have tried to take on some of the good things about all those places.
In Dusseldorf recently I saw Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self Portrait on the border between Mexico and the USA’, and it immediately made me laugh with that shock of surprise: there she is on a plinth, in a pink European dress, holding a Mexican flag in one hand and a cigarette in the other, with a bunch of indigenous Mexican gods on one side of her and American skyscrapers on the other. Immediately I wanted to write a poem called ‘Self Portrait at Dunkerque’, because every year I drive off the ferry, with my American wife, and feel that liberation of being in Europe again, after a couple of weeks of being very English in England. I like being Luxembourgish/European, English, and (sort of) American, and would hate to have to surrender any one of them.
Perhaps I have been so happy teaching at the European School because most of my pupils there are juggling multiple identities, like Frida Kahlo. I find it a place of infinite richness and constant surprise. The current movement across Europe, England and America to reduce identity to one thing (one nation, one language, one class, one skin colour) is sad and impoverishing. Frida Kahlo shows how you can create a richer self by incorporating a multiplicity of identities into you. That is why she is my greatest role model. (I am very aware that I haven’t even begun to talk about her as a woman, which I know, from watching my daughters, is an equally powerful and vital aspect of her legacy – it’s just not one that concerns me so much.)
James Leader is author of four books, he was also awarded first prize in Luxembourg’s 2016 national literary competition. His poetry has been shortlisted in numerous contests and last year Luxembourg commissioned him to write a poem for the Luxembourg pavilion at the Dubai World Expo.