At the center of Frida Kahlo’s home at the Casa Azul in Mexico City was a garden. Teeming with lush bougainvillea, fruit trees, cacti, and native plants like agave and yucca, Kahlo’s garden was a creative refuge and a source of inspiration for her art. A lover of the natural world, Kahlo also surrounded herself with animals, including two pet spider monkeys named Caimito de Guayabal and Fulang Chan, parrots, an eagle, a deer, and a pack of Xoloitzcuintli, or Mexican hairless dogs.
From now through November 2, Texans can immerse themselves in an interpretation of the renowned Mexican artist’s garden. The San Antonio Botanical Garden’s exhibit “Frida Kahlo Oasis” features painstakingly re-created replicas of the iconic blue walls of Casa Azul, as well as of Kahlo’s desk and easel. There’s a pyramid that pays tribute to the one that Diego Rivera created at Casa Azul to display his collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. Six animal monuments in a variety of artistic styles from across Mexico also dot the garden’s grounds; these sculptures were brought to life by Mexican artisans from the group Phantasus Taller Ensamble. In addition, six 7-foot-tall Frida sculptures by artist Paul Zarkin debuted at the garden.
Sabina Carr, the garden’s CEO, says she wanted to make full use of the facility’s recently completed $40 million renovation. Her staff also drew inspiration from a similar 2015 exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden, which was the first to examine Kahlo’s use of botanical imagery in her work. It hasn’t been done in the same way since, Carr points out.
“I thought, if anyone can do it, this garden can do it,” Carr says. “We’re San Antonio—we used to be Mexico. There’s so many deep connections between our communities even today.”
With backing from the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, members of Phantasus Taller Ensamble made plaster casting molds of the stonework at the base of the entrance at Casa Azul to re-create it exactly. The group also was allowed to take small paint samples to match the indigo blue, burnt sienna, and rich green found in Kahlo’s home. Carr and her team visited the artisans in Mexico while the replica walls and niches were in progress. “The attention to detail has been phenomenal,” she says.
The showstoppers of “Oasis” are, of course, the plants. Under three mature oak trees creating large shaded areas, five themed garden beds lined with lava rock showcase plants that have either grown in Kahlo’s garden or appear in her artwork, according to Andrew Labay, director of horticulture at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. “[Kahlo’s garden] really brings this combination of lush tropical plants like philodendron, sansevieria, and tropical bird of paradise, and then also these desert plants like agave and different cacti and succulents,” he explains.
Adriana Zavala, associate professor of art history and race, colonialism, and diaspora at Tufts University, curated the 2015 exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. Zavala spent two years researching how Kahlo transformed the garden at Casa Azul. She argues that the artist’s home was as wildly creative as her artwork. “Kahlo didn’t just express herself in her painting—she expressed her creativity in the way that she dressed and in the house as well,” Zavala says.
Casa Azul was the artist’s childhood home. Originally bought by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, in 1904, the home had an interior courtyard garden that was used as a kitchen garden and as a relaxation space for the family. Starting in 1939 and into the 1940s, Kahlo’s husband and fellow artist, Diego Rivera, bought two adjacent lots and expanded the property. He collaborated with friend and architect Juan O’Gorman to transform the home “to express his sense of this indigenous rootedness of Mexican modernity,” Zavala says.
Kahlo and Rivera redecorated the home in a folkloric style with rustic, hand-painted wooden furniture, woven palm frond floor coverings, folk art, and pre-Columbian artifacts, all representative of their passion to connect to Mexico’s indigenous roots, an idea the duo embraced after the Mexican Revolution.
“Mexican nationalism is grounded in the mythology that all Mexicans are mestizo people, and mestizo was primarily defined in Mexico as Spanish and Indigenous,” Zavala explains. “Of course, there are African-descended people and there are Asian people in Mexico as well, not to mention people from other parts of the world. But in the twentieth century, there was a discourse of mestizaje, and that was one of the hallmarks of post-revolutionary nationalism.” A member of the Communist party, Kahlo was politically active and often explored themes of Mexican identity in her work—sometimes in subtle ways.
“This representation of plants, animals, flowers, and fruits is her way of really proclaiming her Mexicanness, actually, in a context where her Mexicanness could have been contested because of her German parentage,” Zavala says.
From early on in her work, Kahlo was inspired by life at home and in the garden. For example, the first painting she ever sold, Dos Mujeres (Salvadora and Herminia), is a portrait of two women who were her family’s domestic workers. They’re set against a backdrop of green leaves from a citrus tree, a tree that was known to be at the center of the family garden while Kahlo was growing up.
In the forties in particular, Kahlo’s paintings were full of plants, some more allegorical than others, and still lifes of the tropical fruits she found in abundance at markets in Mexico City. As Kahlo struggled with chronic illness and disability later in her life, she spent more and more time at home—and turned her artistic gaze inward as well. “As she’s experiencing more containment and enclosure at home, she’s drawing inspiration from things that really signify her love of Mexican culture and her love of color,” Zavala explains.
The first animal monument to greet visitors to the botanical garden is a Xoloitzcuintli fashioned as a pre-Columbian clay figure. The dog is rooted in pre-Columbian culture and mythology, which held that it was the shepherd to the underworld. Some of the other animal monuments include a hummingbird in the style of Purépecha ceramics and a deer in the style of petatillo clay pottery.
Throughout the coming months, the botanical garden will host events and programs to pair with the exhibit, including a kite-making workshop for kids, tequila tastings and date nights for adults, art history lectures, educational tours, and cooking classes. Kahlo’s grand-niece and her daughter will share family recipes in a September cooking class featuring Kahlo’s favorite food staples: corn and squash.
As Zavala studied Kahlo’s relationship with the natural world, she was struck by the extent to which duality inflected her life. An avid reader of philosophy, Kahlo knew that Mesoamerican people “tended to believe in both the attraction of opposites and the interdependence of opposites: the sun and the moon, life and death, the underworld and the heavens.” While Kahlo’s health continued to decline, she kept creating beautiful, vibrant works of art—an array of still lifes of provocatively arranged tropical fruits. In Still Life With Parrot and Flag, a halved sapote is the focal point surrounded by mangos, guavas, prickly pears, an open cantaloupe, a ripe cherimoya full of seeds, and one banana. She was likely thinking about both the beauty and the fleeting nature of existence.
“I think that surrounding herself with the natural world was both because she had an acute sense of her own mortality,” Zavala says,“but it was also a way of understanding that that’s the cycle of life.”