Ella Heilmann is a Theology student at the University of Edinburgh. Last year she studied at the Catholic University of Chile while working in contemporary art museums.
Last year’s Making Herself Up (V&A 2018) narrated Frida Kahlo’s life through her personal belongings: family photographs, clothing, shoes, jewellery, cosmetics and – most notably – a significant collection of Mexican ex-votos (Spanish for ‘votive offerings’). In image and text, these tin votives paint scenes of illness, incarceration, hunting wounds, train crashes – any misfortune imaginable. But in each case, tragedy is miraculously averted! Thanks to the influence of la Virgen de Guadalupe, or Madre de Misericordia, or la Virgen de Talpa, your wife recovers from the flu, your son is released from jail, and your leg wound heals. These intimate narrations of the encounter of ordinary and extraordinary are partially silenced in Making Herself Up to make space for another narrative: Kahlo’s life, work, love, accident and (lack of?) faith. This calls for an analysis of the layers of interpretation in museum curation and display of ex-votos – layers that largely neglect cultural hegemonies and notions of ‘popular’ religion within post-revolution Mexico.
The moment an ex-voto enters a museum, it becomes a museum object. This may sound redundant but it involves crucial processes of meaning-exchange, where objects leave behind old meanings in favour of new meanings. This is why the role of conservationists and curators is so central – they are in charge of the meanings that newly-dubbed ‘museum objects’ acquire, and so have a huge influence in their public reception. Crispin Paine (2013) thinks that this ‘museumification’ is especially dramatic with religious objects, which may change into ethnographic objects, art objects, narrative objects – all functions that significantly contrast with their previous roles as symbols of devotion. Museums are conscious of the implications of this process, and the V&A’s Ethics Checklist reveals procedures surrounding the ‘museumification’ of objects such as Kahlo’s collection of ex-votos (V&A 2004).
Despite these guidelines, this ‘museumification’ is inevitably embodied in the V&A’s ex-voto display, the way that the objects are physically framed and hung. These votive offerings are taken radically out of their original context of presentation. Originally, the retablos are attached to church walls, in front of particular Marian devotions or saints to show gratitude. With so many favours granted and grateful grantees, ex-votos saturate church walls, hung in their multiplicity and collectivity. The display in Making Herself Up is drastically different: the ex-votos are hung in thick black frames, organised thematically against a dark red wall. This ordered presentation is entirely foreign to their intended role as votive offerings, perhaps questioning the success of their display. Museums are increasingly innovative in the display of their objects, breaking away from the conventional ‘curiosities cabinet’ exhibition style – this was clear in Wellcome Collection’s Infinitas Gracias: Mexican Miracle Paintings (2012), which exhibits hundreds of ex-votos, attached directly onto the wall and surrounded by church railings. But we can’t be too hard on Making Herself Up; the black frames may neglect the ex-votos primary context of origin, but a photograph does pay homage to their display in Kahlo’s house. So the ex-votos fulfil their function in narrating Kahlo’s life. Nevertheless, this raises considerations that apply to all religious objects: how should a votive be displayed in a museum context? Should their original contexts of display be considered, and if yes, in what way?
Paine’s concept of ‘museumification’ can also be observed through the curation of the ex-votos, that is, the way in which the pieces are selected, organised and represented. Through looking at the exhibition narrative of Making Herself Up, we learn how the ex-votos primarily function to illustrate the story of Kahlo’s life in a post-revolution Mexico. In these painted ex-votos, narrative is the central means of expressing gratitude. Each tells a story, not only of misfortune and miracles, but also of daily concerns and beliefs. This visual narrative of the ex-voto lends itself to museum display, which tends to consolidate multiple narratives in attempt to construct a singular exhibition narrative.
In Making Herself Up, the ex-votos’ multiple narratives are consolidated into the story of Kahlo’s life. To a certain extent, this sidelines the devotional function of ex-votos, presenting limited knowledge of the original significance of the retablos displayed. But this is unsurprising considering Kahlo’s atheism – a point which the exhibition accentuates through focusing on the ex-votos’ cultural and aesthetic significance. This exemplifies the way in which the curation and display of religious objects can alter meanings, perhaps even stripping them of their intended devotional purpose. In this case, although the ex-votos are presented as religious objects, the exhibition narrative sidelines their sacred significance in favour of Kahlo’s atheism.
Furthermore, Making Herself Up implies that Kahlo’s interest in ex-votos stems from her medical history. Aged 18, Kahlo was in a bus that collided with a trolley car, a near-fatal accident that left her bed-bound for much of her life. This connection between ex-voto and accident is mirrored in the exhibition structure, which guides the visitor through Kahlo’s life: after the ex-votos symbolically represent Kahlo’s tram accident, their transitory display in a passageway leads to the ‘Endurance’ room portraying Kahlo’s ensuing medical challenges. The wall-texts emphasise the link between Kahlo’s accident and ex-votos, describing how Kahlo specifically sought out retablos depicting road accidents, even altering one to resemble her own accident. Kahlo’s curation of specifically road accident ex-votos makes tangible the multiple layers of selection and interpretation that come before an ex-voto even enters a museum.
Kahlo’s drawing The Accident fuses multiple perspectives and timeframes, suggesting how she understood the tragedy through the lens of the ex-voto. This exemplifies how Making Herself Up presents ex-votos as a significant visual influence for Kahlo’s own paintings, which similarly employ the “narrative power of retablo and its compression of space and time”. A wall text explains how Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s husband, commented on the roots of Kahlo’s painting, “I would shout it a masterpiece, were it not that popular painting lies beyond the masterpiece” (wall text, Making Herself Up, V&A 2018).
Rivera’s comment highlights a crucial – and controversial – denomination: ex-votos as examples of Mexican ‘popular’ art or religion. This is important for numerous reasons. Firstly, it draws a contrast between popular religion and institutionalised religion. This is a central consideration in the display of religious objects. Paine (2013) highlights the difficulties of reflecting the lived experience of religion in museums, explaining why curators often turn to formalised religion to contextualise displayed objects. This is clearly the case in Making Herself Up – a wall text explains that votive paintings are “still an important part of the Catholic tradition today”. As well as sidelining the complex hegemonic relationship between popular practices and institutional Catholicism, this text assumes that votive offerings have not evolved since Kahlo’s time. This is part of a larger museum trend of using religious objects to “illustrate the ‘folk religion’ of the community’s past, and often also its folk aesthetics and crafts” (Paine 2013, 102). Breaking away from this trend is Infinitas Gracias, which highlights the evolutionary nature of religious practice through a wall-sized display of contemporary Mexican votives, including letters, photographs and wedding dresses. Of course, ex-votos are not the focus of Making Herself Up; as already expressed, their primary function is to narrate Kahlo’s life. But it is critical to note what is included and excluded in museum narratives, as this has wider implications on cultural reception.
Secondly, the display of ex-votos equivocates popular religion and culture and Mexican culture – the ex-votos, videos, objects and dress representing ‘folk’ life are presented in a room entitled ‘Picturing Mexico’. This is significant through exploring the context in which Kahlo was working. As the exhibition highlights, post-revolution Mexico emerged with “a new sense of pride in Mexico’s heritage and culture, and in the history of its many indigenous peoples” (wall text, Making Herself Up 2018). Although the exhibition praises Kahlo’s “deep respect for her Mexican culture”, it neglects mentioning its context within wider Mexican indigenismo – an ideology which appropriated indigenous “rich” and “unspoiled” (ibid) culture into the larger Mexican national body as a means of legitimising the post-revolution Mexican nation-state (Lomnitz 2001). This is not a critique of the Making Herself Up; through processes of knowledge inclusion and exclusion, all exhibitions inevitably present partial representations. But it does highlight the immense influence and responsibility of the curator, particularly when presenting particular cultures or ideologies to an audience overseas, relating to a wider question of how Mexican (and more broadly Latin American) culture is presented in London and UK museum contexts.
Overall, the ex-votos in Making Herself Up highlight several realities of the presentation of votives, and religious objects generally, in museum contexts. Of course, the ex-votos’ primary function in the exhibition is to further the narrative of Kahlo’s life; they serve as a symbolic representation of her accident, as an example of post-revolution Mexican culture, and as a pivotal influence to her work. And inevitably, these curatorial choices exclude other narratives, namely the specific religious and cultural significance of ex-votos – their function as devotional items, their status as ‘popular religion’, and their context within post-revolution indigenismo.
For those interested in the museum display of Mexican votives, until July 2019 the Casa del Manzoni in Milan is showing a series of 300 Mexican ex-votos in “Buena Suerte – Milagros de México” Folklore e tradizione negli ex-voto messicani contemporanei. Though not specifically focusing on the life and work of Kahlo, the exhibition does highlight how these ex-votos had a major impact on her imaginary retablos recounting episodes from her own life.
by Ella Heilmann
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1998) Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lomnitz, Claudio. (2001) ‘Bordering on Anthropology the Dialectics of a National Tradition in Mexico’. Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Paine, C. (2013) Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives, Public Duties. London: Bloomsbury.
Richmond, A. (2005) ‘The Ethics Checklist: Ten Years On’. Conservation Journal, 50. Available at:http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/conservation-journal/issue-50/the-ethics-checklist-ten-years-on/[Date accessed: 11/12/18].
V&A (2004) ‘The Ethics Checklist’. Conservation Journal, 50. Available at:http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/conservation-journal/issue-50/appendix-1/[Date accessed: 06/01/19].