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FaRIDA 2015-2022



Ghada Khunji: FaRIDA, an Alter Ego

A woman stares out of a photomontage that is an unabashed recreation of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. The woman, FaRIDA, bears an unnerving resemblance to the Mexican painter, as does the photomontage to the painting. Both women, in obvious pain, stare stoically out of their respective works.

Ghada Khunji, prodigal daughter, award-winning photographer, returned to Bahrain in 2013. In the twenty-five years that she had lived in New York, she had developed a style influenced by photographers such as Diane Arbus and Annie Leibovitz. Her work was outward looking and vicarious. Like Arbus, Khunji appeared to capture an essential part of her subject with a candid immediacy but, at least superficially, she remained a voyeuristic observer firmly situated outside her work.

Given Khunji’s earlier documentary work, Kahlo seems an unlikely inspiration. Kahlo’s paintings are deeply personal, an ongoing investigation of her inner life and personal pain so intimate and self-absorbed that at times they have been described as ostensibly narcissistic1. Unsurprisingly, prior to her return to Bahrain, Khunji’s interest in the Mexican painter's work was cursory.

By the time Khunji was reintroduced to Kahlo’s paintings in 2015, her work had experienced a marked shift. Feeling that documentary photography was neither understood nor appreciated in Bahrain in the same way as it was in New York, she had started to experiment with photomontage as an alternative medium. Turning the lens on herself, she was producing work that was uncharacteristically introspective.

Kahlo was ‘… an artist who had been bending genders, blending ethnicities, making the personal political and revolutionizing the concept of ‘beautiful,’’2 well before it became fashionable. Rediscovering Kahlo’s work at that point in her life resonated deeply with Khunji. The impact was visceral, spawning FaRIDA who features in a series of photomontages that are beautifully shameless appropriations of Kahlo’s paintings.

‘There is an alchemy in pain,’ says Khunji, and in telling the story of her own pain she recounts the suffering of all women and describes its transmutation into strength and beauty. She tells of limiting taboos and confronting realizations: women’s relationships with their own bodies, societal restrictions imposed by gender, heritage, and class, the pain of loss, as distinct from that caused by physical or emotional violation.

The photomontages are almost identical in composition to Kahlo’s paintings, and like the paintings, they are rife with symbolism, but Khunji, by incorporating her own motifs, creates a visual vocabulary entirely her own. Each object in the photomontages is owned by either Khunji or members of her immediate family and holds a deep personal significance.

In her version of Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), she replaces the thorns with her mother’s bangle which she pairs with her

grandmother’s earrings. The butterflies that adorn her hair come from a collection that her mother had purchased while on holiday in Thailand. The coloured butterflies hug the side of her head; the darker ones fly away taking with them the dark thoughts that plague her. She replaces Frida’s monkey with an Arabian falcon. It sits protectively on her shoulder, but it digs its talons into her flesh drawing blood. The bird is a part of her, its tail feathers blending into those of the one tattooed on her arm. She asks to what degree are we complicit in our own pain?

She replaces its eye with one of her own, her third eye. The effect is at once shamanic and surreal. An ‘Immaculate Heart’ replaces the hummingbird referencing the suffering of the Virgin Mary and recalling the Catholic influences of her early childhood.

In another work, FaRIDA’s head sits atop the body of a falcon, an homage to Kahlo’s Wounded Deer (1946). The cacti behind her situate Khunji in her desert home with two of them protruding out of her head like antlers, a playful nod to her muse. Two swords pierce the Immaculate Heart in the middle of her chest, with another five piercing her body in several places, possibly referencing the Seven Sorrows. Red pomegranate seeds, her drops of blood, fall to the ground. While in Middle Eastern culture the fruit symbolizes abundance and prosperity, to Khunji it means the loss of fertility that comes with the passage of time, which is echoed in the two watches emblazoned with her portrait as a child in the lower half of the work.

FaRIDA remains a work-in-progress as Khunji continues to expand it as a form of therapy for herself, a realization of strength and beauty, as well as an exploration of her pain in relation to others’. Andre Breton once famously described Frida Kahlo's paintings as a 'colored ribbon around a bomb.' FaRIDA, may in time prove to be no less incendiary.

Sulaf Derawy Zakharia - Writer

Prignitz-Poda, Helga (2003), Frida Kahlo: A Painter and Her Work, Schirmer/Mosel 1

Cotter, Holland (2008), The People’s Artist, Herself a Work of Art, New York Times 2

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