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Another side of a legend

Bi painter Kahlo’s photos displayed in new exhibit

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‘Frida Kahlo: Her Photos’
Artisphere
1101 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA
Feb. 23-March 25

(Images courtesy Frida Kahlo Museum via Artisphere)

 

Fans of Frida Kahlo and students of photography in the D.C. area have a rare opportunity to see a collection of photographs that document and explore the fascinating life and rich legacy of this influential queer artist.

From Feb. 23 through March 25, Artisphere will be the only venue in the United States to show “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos,” an exhibition of personal photographs that have been hidden from public view since Kahlo’s death in 1954.

The extraordinary work of bisexual Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is celebrated by a diverse group of dedicated fans. Best known for a series of stunning self-portraits that use costume and color to great effect, Kahlo is now seen as an important member of the surrealist movement. Artist André Breton hailed her work as a “ribbon around a bomb” and it’s admired in Mexico as an exploration of national and indigenous traditions. Feminists celebrate her painting as an uncompromising depiction of female bodies and lives and a powerful testament to her incredible strength in facing a life of chronic pain.

Writing in the online encyclopedia glbtq, queer cultural critic Tamsin Wilton also underscores the importance of Kahlo as a queer artist. During her long tempestuous marriage to famous activist and artist Diego Rivera, Kahlo had several affairs with both men and women. More artistically significant, however, is her bold use of costume to challenge traditional notions of female sexuality. Just as her depictions of ornate Mexican costumes were used to celebrate indigenous Amerindian culture, Wilton writes that Kahlo was often pictured in male attire to “make a statement about her own independence from feminine norms. She was a masterly and magical exponent of cross-dressing, deliberately using male ‘drag’ to project power and independence.”

During her life, Kahlo created and collected more than 2,500 photographs from her international travels and from visitors to the house that she and Rivera shared. After Rivera’s death, in accordance with his will, this collection of snapshots was sealed and put in storage. In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of Rivera’s death, the collection was opened and cataloged by Mexican photographer and curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio.

Monasterio has assembled 259 of these photographs into “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos,” which opens next week in Arlington. He has arranged the photographs into six thematic areas that align with the periods in Kahlo’s life. Each area was displayed in a separate room of the Blue House, a display that is recreated at Artisphere.

The first room, called Origins, documents the profound influence that Kahlo’s family had on her work. Her father Guillermo Kahlo, a German émigré, was a portrait photographer. He taught Frida the art of photography and trained her in the darkroom. Her mother, Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez, was a Roman Catholic with mixed Spanish and Amerindian heritage. The second room, The Blue House, explores Casa Azul, the Kahlo family home in Coyoacán Mexico, a sister city of Arlington, Va., where Frida was born, lived most of her life and died.

The third room, The Broken Body, displays photographs examining a central theme in Kahlo’s life and work, her serious physical injuries and her struggles with intense chronic pain. Kahlo contracted polio at age 6. As a result, her right leg was significantly thinner than her left. She often disguised this by wearing long skirts. In 1925, while she was a student in medical school, Kahlo was in a serious bus accident that left her with significant injuries, including multiple broken bones and internal injuries. These injuries made it impossible for her to bear children, a fact that haunted her for life. Over the course of 29 years, Kahlo endured 35 operations and suffered three miscarriages. She was frequently in intense pain and had to be bedridden or confined to a hospital for long periods.

Kahlo began her career as an artist when she was in a body cast after her accident. Her mother designed a special easel for her and her father lent her paint and brushes. In addition to themes of national and sexual identity, her work often drew on images of bodily pain and expressed feelings of pain.

The fourth room of the exhibition is called Love and includes images of Kahlo’s family and friends, including her husband Diego and two of her male lovers. (The exhibition does not include any pictures of her known female lovers.) Cynthia Connelly, Artisphere’s Visual Arts Curator, is amazed by the incredible relationships Kahlo developed during her life.

“When you walk through this room — and the entire exhibition — you get a sense of a really strong woman who surrounded herself with creative and challenging people,” Connelly says. “She lived a wonderful life and opened herself up to all kinds of ideas and experiences. She and Diego lived through so much history, but they were also creating history.”

The fifth room, Photography, looks at the connection between Kahlo’s painting and her snapshot collection. Curator Ortiz traces several images, including a black cat and a dead baby, from Kahlo’s canvases back to their photographic origins. The sixth room, Diego’s Eyes, presents a series of photographs that directly and indirectly influenced Rivera’s huge political murals.

Connolly says those visiting the exhibition should be sure to read the photos’ descriptions, which contain a bounty of back story.

Each of the pictures is displayed with detailed information on the subject and artist (where they are known), date and media. In addition, Kahlo has left handwritten notes on the back of many of the snapshots, and in one case even left a lipstick print over an image of her husband Diego. Connolly also points out that the exhibit is a little like a mystery. “Each of the photographs fills in a little bit of her story,” she says, “but many of them bring up further questions and we can’t answer all of them for you. Pay attention to the details.”

These pictures also document an important moment in art history — the emergence of photography as a public art form. “In a time where almost everyone has a camera phone, we take photographs for granted,” Connolly says. “This was a time when photography was just coming into mass consumption. Snapshots were becoming less formal. Think about the kind of cameras being used and who processed the film.”

Given her skills in the darkroom, Kahlo may have developed many of them herself, though the photos shown at Artisphere are copies. Under the terms of Rivera’s will, the artifacts from Casa Azul are not allowed to leave Mexico. The local exhibition has been arranged in the same layout used by Monasterio in the original exhibition.

In addition to the historic photographs, the celebration of Frida Kahlo at Artisphere includes a variety of related events. There are two film series, one on women filmmakers (including Julie Taymor’s biopic “Frida” with Selma Hayek as the famous artist) and one featuring Robert Rodriguez; performances by flamenco artists, female salsa artists and the Mexican Institute of Sound; and hands-on workshops on surrealism.

Artisphere has produced this exhibition in collaboration with the Frida Kahlo Museum (Coyoacán, Mexico), Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli (Coyoacán, Mexico), the Embassy of Mexico, the Mexican Cultural Institute and Arlington County, with additional support from the Rosslyn Business Improvement District. This international collaboration was initially facilitated by the Arlington Sister City Association.

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Arts & Entertainment

After COVID hiatus, John Waters resumes touring schedule

‘Every single thing is different after COVID’

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John Watersis on the road again. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For the first time in nearly two years, writer and filmmaker John Waters will be appearing on stage this fall before live audiences in the Baltimore-Washington area, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Waters, who lives in Baltimore, is scheduled to bring his spoken-word holiday show, “A John Waters Christmas,” to The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Dec. 15, and Baltimore Soundstage on Dec. 21. He’ll also be at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Nov. 29 and The Vermont Hollywood on Dec. 2.

Waters’ holiday shows were cancelled in 2020 due to the theater closings and travel restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some book signings for fans were converted to Zoom sessions. He last toured the country in November and December of 2019.

This year, with vaccinations on the rise, Waters has made a few in-person appearances, including a concert with gay country crooner Orville Peck in Colorado in July, where he was “special guest host”; a Q&A session with fans in Provincetown in August and a music festival last weekend in Oakland, Calif. He’s scheduled to visit another 18 cities between now and the end of the year, including a weekend in Wroclaw, Poland, where he’ll be honored during the American Film Festival there in November.

Waters said he has completely rewritten his spoken-word shows to reflect changes brought about by the COVID pandemic. “I haven’t done it in a year and a half,” he said in an interview with Town & Country magazine. “Every single thing is different after COVID. You cannot do the same show. Nothing’s the same.”

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Theater

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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