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Liberating Frida : Art: Social and Public Art Resource Center pays homage to the late Mexican painter by celebrating the less commercial aspects of her persona.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The “unibrow” was the fashion news at the Social and Public Art Resource Center.

In case your eyebrows didn’t grow together naturally, the ticket-taker Friday night had an eyebrow pencil handy so you could draw in the silhouette of a vulture hovering above your nose.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had eyebrows like that, as well as a faint but distinct mustache. Because the Venice facility was honoring Kahlo, who has inexplicably become as famous in her fashion as Elvis since she died at age 47 in 1954, pre-party electrolysis was definitely unnecessary.

The occasion was a dance, look-alike contest and exorcism to “Free Frida.” Not an exorcism in the “Get thee behind me, Satan” sense, but what SPARC Artistic Director Judith Baca and other Chicana artists at the event called “a ritual cleansing.”

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As a SPARC press release explained, the plan was to liberate La Frida “from the entangling snare of capitalist commercialism. . . . Recognition of Frida Kahlo has turned into a virtual cult, complete with icons, mystical implications and an atmosphere of unbridled hucksterism that, in SPARC’s view, detracts from her humanistic philosophy. SPARC will attempt to ‘cleanse’ Frida of this unwelcome infection.”

How do you rid a dead artist of unwelcome baggage?

Start with a personalized altar. The one for Frida was covered with paper flowers, unsmiling photos of the artist, reproductions of her self-portraits, candles, incense and strings of red-pepper Christmas lights. On an overhead TV, a video by Alessandra Moctezuma ran over and over again, incorporating unsettling images of a naked woman wearing a corset--such as the one Kahlo used to ease her tortured back--and of an unseen woman in a bathtub, wrenching the petals off the flowers that floated at her feet.

Friends of Frida made other offerings. Kahlo’s feminist admirers have trouble with her penchant for men, notably husband Diego Rivera, with Cro-Magnon views on gender politics. “I don’t think they had self-help books in Frida’s day,” observed Lindsey Haley. She gifted the spirit of Kahlo with a copy of “Women Who Love Too Much,” re-titled “For Women Whose Men Treat Them Like Gacho, " a slang term meaning loutishly that caused the assembled Chicanas to guffaw into their Coronas.

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SPARC Curator Marietta Bernstorff said mea culpa for running art-related shops, including SPARC’s, that stock Frida jewelry, T-shirts and other tangible evidence of what some revisionists are calling Fridamania. “I’m giving her back her earrings,” Bernstorff said, as she pulled them from her ears.

Baca reminded the audience of Kahlo’s little-known but important contributions as an arts activist. While husband Rivera did monumental, government-subsidized murals, Kahlo encouraged community art, much like the neighborhood murals SPARC sponsors in Los Angeles. Kahlo advocated painting non-elitist art on the walls of pulquerias, the bars that cater to the poor throughout Mexico.

Baca’s offering was a reproduction of Kahlo’s signature. Baca had copied it earlier in the day from the autograph book of Kahlo’s friend, actor Gilbert Roland.

Although Kahlo is a female impersonator’s dream, only women entered the look-alike contest. There were six crypto-Kahlos in contention, five of them elaborately coiffed and costumed in the peasant chic the artist favored. The sixth was an Anglo in an Ann Taylor blouse and skirt, who penciled in an eyebrow and stuck a flower in her light brown hair. She fooled no one, not even this reporter, who was one of the judges.

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Twenty-five-year-old Rosemarie Lagunas won in the best resemblance category. Like the store Santa who tells you to go ahead and pull his beard, Lagunas made a point of telling people that her luxuriant eyebrow was her own. The young actress carried a sheaf of professional photos of herself as La Frida with which Lagunas hopes to convince director Luis Valdez that she, not Demi Moore or Debra Winger, is the perfect choice to play Kahlo in his upcoming film--as opposed to Madonna’s similar project.

Casting of a non-Latina actress would be “sacrilegious and a rape of our culture,” Lagunas said, as her publicist passed out business cards and smiled approvingly.

Rumors that Jodie Foster will play Kahlo in yet another film version caused Lagunas to glower in a way that undoubtedly made Diego sit up and whistle when Frida did it.

Selected as the most original entry was the team of Raquel Salinas and Lalo Lopez, who came as Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. The exiled leader of the Russian Revolution was one of Kahlo’s many lovers, male and female, despite the fact that she was a Stalinist. Salinas, who said she is “thirty-something,” was an elegant Frida in contrast to Lagunas’ angry one.

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Also an actress, Salinas has been playing Kahlo for the Montebello School District, going into classes of schoolchildren to prepare them for visits to the “Splendors of Mexico” exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which features six of Kahlo’s paintings.

Lopez, 25, is a comedian with Chicano Secret Service, a comedy troupe that recently relocated here from Berkeley.

The judges decided SPARC staffer Alma Lopez also deserved a recognition for originality. She followed SPARC’s directive to come as Kahlo or one of her lovers by dressing as a toad. The hard-core Fridaphiles in the crowd realized she was dressed as “Sapo,” Kahlo’s pet name for the homely Rivera.

The crowd of 150 snacked on tequila and tamales and danced until after midnight.

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If you must know, Madonna did not attend.


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