Section II: Identity Formation


This section introduces documentary material comprised of photographs, films, diaries and objects that situate each artist’s practice within specific personal and socio-cultural contexts. Moreover, the content reveals a transformative narrative for each of the artists, from childhood into adulthood and from early European influences to an embodied, local, indigenous identity formation.

Frida Kahlo’s own identity was the central motif around which her artistic expression was manifest. In this exhibition, the focus is not on Kahlo’s surrealist paintings but on the ways she constructed her identity within the broader context of a new post-revolutionary Mexico. Central to Kahlo’s thinking was ‘Mexicanidad’ (‘Mexican-ness’), a new Mexican identity founded on indigenous culture and heritage.

The photographs of Amrita Sher-Gil in the exhibition take the visitors through Sher-Gil’s experiences in Europe and her decision to return to India in 1934. These images are a testament to the role of personal agency in the construction of a modern subject. In India, Sher-Gil painted her relatives but also depicted the poor,  women and everyday life subjects.

Irma Stern’s work was informed by her personal history and experience of travelling throughout Africa and Europe. As a result of her father’s imprisonment during the Anglo-Boer War, the Stern family moved to Germany. During World War I, Stern was an active member of the Novembergruppe in Berlin, but the rise of antisemitism in Europe precipitated her return to South Africa. In colonial Cape Town, however, being Jewish and a woman meant that she was also something of an outsider in the art circles of her home city.