Frida Fever: Kahlo Exhibit Highlights the Art of Trade

The Global Appeal of Folk Art

On February 27, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) opened its first-ever Frida Kahlo exhibit, celebrating the Mexican artist who died 65 years ago, but whose uni-browed image lives on in film, publications, and countless examples of pop culture from mugs to soaps to posters.

The exhibit puts a spotlight on the influence on Kahlo’s work of “arte popular,” traditional Mexican folk art, and how she in turn helped promote these handmade objects as a unifying national artform in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). The exhibit features eight Kahlo paintings, mostly loaned from U.S. museums, but one (“Girl with Death Mask,” 1938) on loan from the Nagoya City Art Museum in Japan. In addition, three paintings by other Mexican modernists – María Izquierdo, Rosa Rolanda, and Gabriel Fernández Ledesma – are on loan from a private collection in Mexico City, the Andrés Blaisten collection. Visitors also have the chance to see handcrafted pieces like bowls, pots, and other everyday objects made in Jalisco, Puebla, and other Mexican artistic centers.

Viewing the exhibit’s beautiful indigenous items, one understands why folk art is commanding both attention and higher prices, forming what is now a global industry that gives artisans a wide range of outlets for their work, while generating sales for retailers and online shops. The variety of such pieces, together with the vivid Kahlo and other paintings on display, also present an opportunity to consider the border customs processes that make such shows possible.

Artisan Trade as a Growth Driver

The exhibit’s focus on the powerful influence of indigenous cultural pieces is echoed in the attention today on the artisan sector as a source of economic potential. According to the Artisan Alliance, the artisan sector is the second-largest employer in the developing world after agriculture, worth over $32 billion every year. International trade in artisan goods more than doubled between 2002 and 2012, and growing numbers of foundations, corporations, and banks view the artisan entrepreneur arena as an investable sector. Increasing e-commerce opportunities via online marketplaces are also helping to drive the so-called maker movement, involving both artisans and the consumers of their handcrafted products.

Despite the size of the opportunity and growth trends, many artisan entrepreneurs, predominantly women and small producers, still lack access to capital and other tools to succeed in the global marketplace. The Artisan Alliance offers resources to address these needs, and trade negotiators are also attempting to play a positive role in helping small, women-owned and indigenous producers through collaborative initiatives within trade agreements.

The recently signed U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) agreement’s Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise (SME) chapter, for example, calls on each Party to “strengthen its collaboration with the other Parties on activities to promote SMEs owned by under-represented groups, including women, indigenous peoples, youth and minorities, as well as start-ups, agricultural and rural SMEs, and promote partnership among these SMEs and their participation in international trade.”

Photo Credit: Trunk, late 19th century Made in Olinalá, Guerrero Lacquered and painted wood / San Antonio Museum of Art, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Mexican Folk Art Collection, Photography by Peggy Tenison courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

From Michoacán to Massachusetts: Trade’s Role in Showcasing Artistic Treasures around the World

Admiring the MFA’s display of Kahlo paintings, decorated ceramics, embroidered textiles, and devotional retablo paintings, one might wonder how valuable works of art cross borders and what instrument of international trade allows for the temporary admission of goods, whether artwork for an exhibit, instruments in a traveling orchestra, or the sets used in an overseas movie production.

A document called the ATA Carnet* is the international customs form used to clear merchandise, without paying duties and import taxes, if it will be re-exported within 12 months. A carnet can be used in 87 countries and territories, including the United States, and roughly 200,000 are issued annually, worldwide. With the exception of consumables and disposables, nearly all types of goods can be transported under the system, including commercial samples, professional equipment, and goods for fairs and exhibitions (limited to six months). The entity from the originating country with a beneficial interest in the goods (e.g., the museum loaning a painting) files the carnet application. Another option is to utilize the Temporary Importation under Bond (TIB) program. Each country has its own TIB scheme, but, typically, a TIB will require a cash deposit, unlike the carnet program, which requires no such deposit.

In the United States, most fine arts are not subject to duty so a carnet or TIB might not be worth the cost. However, Leslie Levy August, Vice Chair and Chief Operating Officer of Boomerang Carnets, explains that, like all goods imported for commercial purposes, fine arts still require a customs entry. “A lender would compare the cost and benefits of a permanent (consumption) entry, ATA Carnet and TIB to determine which is most economical,” says August. “Neither the TIB nor the permanent entry will work to get the artwork back into the originating country duty and tax free like the ATA Carnet will. In this way, the ATA Carnet also serves as a Registration of Goods and evidence of where the items originated so they are not assessed duty or taxed upon re-importation.” The ATA Carnet also doesn’t require a customs broker or freight forwarder to obtain or use, so artists hand-carrying artwork get a substantial cost benefit.


Photo credit: Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone), 1938 Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954) Oil on tin, Nagoya City Art Museum © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Art, Image, and Legacy

Boston’s exhibit is attracting a steady stream of visitors, some perhaps originally captivated by Frida Kahlo thanks to Heyden Herrera’s 1983 biography (translated into 25 languages) or Salma Hayek’s 2002 biopic based on the book. Others may simply recognize her distinctive visage, which Tess Thackara,’s Writer-at-Large, has pointed out holds such appeal that it was trademarked by the Florida-based Frida Kahlo Corporation for use on commercial goods. Though the corporation registered the image with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2007, it continues to be reproduced illegally around the world.

In her 2017 article, How Frida Kahlo Became a Global Brand, Thackara explains that a separate trust, the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, owned by the Bank of Mexico, presides over the loan of Kahlo’s artwork. Applying for images of Kahlo’s art requires permission from both the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico as well as the Bank of Mexico.

The Boston Kahlo exhibit includes a small display about a traveling exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts, that was on view at the MFA in 1930, and introduced arte popular to U.S. audiences. The display, which viewers see at the entrance just outside the main exhibit hall, is intended to underscore the long history of artistic exchanges between the United States and Mexico, a history which, for three more months in Boston, is magnificently reflected in the works of one of Mexico’s greatest artists.

* The acronym ATA is a combination of the French and English terms “Admission Temporaire/Temporary Admission.”

Feature photo credit: Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace, 1940 Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954) Oil on canvas Nickolas Muray Collection of Modern Mexican Art, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin © 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston