Section III: Portraits and Self-Portraits

The exhibition design references the cultural and architectural heritage of each of the artists. For Kahlo, the Pre-Columbian architecture of Mexico; for Sher-Gil, Sikh and Mughal architecture in India; and for Stern, Watusi Congo vernacular architecture. A form is abstracted from the architecture to produce a motif that contextually represents the artist.


Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace (1940). Oil on canvas pasted on board. Collection of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Nickolas Muray Collection of Modern Mexican Art. © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust

The subject of many of Kahlo’s paintings was herself (“I paint myself, because I am what I know best.”) She painted fifty-five self-portraits that embody, on the one hand, an external Mexican identity imbued with Pre-Columbian cultural references and symbols, and, on the other hand, an inner subjective realm arising from several traumatic experiences.

Kahlo painted Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace (1940) after her divorce from Rivera and at the end of her affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. The work reflects the influence of her mestizo heritage, and the Catholic symbol of the thorns is combined with Kahlo’s indigenismo politics, which is suggested by the ‘natural’ elements of flowers, leaves, cat and monkey. Here, Kahlo’s complex identity is foregrounded, and shown to be a hybrid repository; of the modern and natural worlds, and of the religious and the secular.


Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil, Three Girls (1935). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

Three Girls (1935) is the first painting Sher-Gil did upon her return to India in 1934. She was on holiday when she met her nieces at her grandparents’ home in Amritsar, and she painted the three sisters, Beant, Narwair and Gurbhajan Kaur with repeated sittings over a period of two to three weeks. The work depicts three young women contained in a pose that suggests a contemplative melancholy.


Irma Stern

Irma Stern, Watussi Woman in Red (1946). Oil on canvas. Courtesy private collection, South Africa

Watussi Woman in Red (1946) was painted around the time of Stern’s second trip to the Congo in 1946. It is a portrait of a young woman dressed in red, set against a lush yellow background. The portrait is not a commission or a simple facsimile of her subject, but rather a robust interpretation in which the artist constructs a self-image that, according to Arnold, is ”infiltrated by her personal and social history and experience”. The young woman depicted in the painting is Princess Emma Bakayishonga, sister of King Mutara III Rudahigwa (1912–1959).