Of the 143 paintings that Frida Kahlo produced in her lifetime, 55 are self-portraits. They show the radical Mexican artist experiencing a vertiginous rollercoaster of emotions: anguish, resilience, heartache, self-doubt, and passion. They’re also the inspiration behind a new set of 160 emoji—dubbed FridaMoji—that hit the App Store this month.
“Frida was just perfect for the project,” says Sam Cantor, the Los Angeles-based gallerist and graphic designer behind FridaMoji. “She conveyed her emotions so honestly and openly in her work. What better artist to translate into emoji, which we use to express emotion today?”
Cantor designed his first Kahlo-inspired emoji last summer. The Instagram account for Cantor Fine Art, the gallery he runs with his father, was attracting a growing number of followers, and Cantor wanted to engage them. His strategy: to canvas his audience with a simple question. “If I were to make emoji of artists, who would you want to see?”
“I was shocked how quickly answers streamed in,” says Cantor. Requests for Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yayoi Kusama, and van Gogh glutted his inbox. So he got to work, using the graphic design and art direction chops he’d sharpened during his years working for powerhouse advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy. He released them one at a time on Cantor Fine Art’s feed. And while all of his creations whipped up excitement, it was Cantor’s Frida Kahlo emoji that “was by far and away the most successful,” he remembers.
It tweaked the classic “woman” emoji by adding a crown of flowers, made from the “hibiscus” and “cherry blossom” icons, the “monkey” emoji, and a unibrow. It was unmistakably Kahlo, and likes streamed in. So did emails from top-tier museums, artist foundations, and Japanese and Korean emoji companies asking to partner with Cantor on the project—and expand it.
One conversation, with the Frida Kahlo Corporation (the entity which “owns the rights to the brand name Frida Kahlo World Wide,” according to its website), began to develop more quickly than the rest. In talking with Cantor, Beatriz Alvarado of the Frida Kahlo Corporation realized they shared the same vision for Kahlo’s legacy: “We both wanted to channel her voice into everyday life—and, in particular, to connect millennials and centennials to her work,” she explains. “Working with new technologies, like emoji, felt like a powerful way to do that.”
It was an ambitious goal, and not without challenges. First and foremost, Cantor and Alvarado faced a design problem: How do you communicate the complexity of such a multifaceted life and body of work into the regimented, graphic language of emoji? Or, as Cantor put it, “How do we express that Frida is more than just a unibrow and a flower crown?” First, Alvarado suggested iconic paintings that could be used as inspiration. Then Cantor began to pour the majority of his time into studying the intricacies of Kahlo’s aesthetic and artistic animus.
His research culminated in a trip to Mexico City, where he spent two weeks studying Kahlo’s paintings in person. The first canvas Cantor saw was Las Dos Fridas (1939), Kahlo’s famed double portrait that she painted after her divorce from Diego Rivera, the behemoth Mexican muralist with whom she had a tumultuous relationship. “The intensity of the emotions on their faces, and how many ways they could be read or stretched to tell different stories, really struck me,” Cantor says. “That was a turning point.”
Cantor became obsessed with Kahlo’s work, as he’ll readily admit: “I now count myself among the Frida maniacs,” he laughs. And soon, he’d designed 400 emoji based on Frida’s paintings, her life, and scholarship written about her. Of those initial designs, 160 made Alvarado’s cut. Some were discarded for aesthetic reasons, others because of issues surrounding artists’ estates. Cantor was most disappointed to see the emoji that combined imagery of Kahlo and Rivera go. But coordinating rights with Rivera’s estate would have prolonged the process.
The next step was distribution. The early emojis Cantor designed were individual images that weren’t compatible with iMessage. He needed to create an app, and a subsidiary of the Korean messaging service Kakao Talk offered to help. But, according to Cantor, in the process of strategizing around distribution, Kakao Talk insisted that Korea have an exclusive on the Kahlo emoji. “Our main goal was to make Frida’s work accessible to as many people as possible,” says Cantor. “So we had to pull away.” So, with the help of a developer, he began building the app from scratch.
This month, FridaMoji became available through Apple’s App Store. Now, Kahlo lovers and fans of expressive emoji everywhere can download the app and start sending icons inspired by Kahlo’s many emotions. One shows an anguished Kahlo, surrounded by a tangle of thorns, based on Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940). Another shows Kahlo dressed as a man with freshly cropped hair, based on Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). And another shows her happily attached to a monkey, based on Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943).
While anticipation has bolstered the FridaMoji release, there have been some dissenters, too. “Some people think that Frida wouldn’t be happy with this approach,” Alvarado explains. “But Frida’s own spirit of reinvention is what we tried to channel through the emoji. We want to express that Frida and her work represent change, free will, self-expression, and individuality, and I can’t imagine that she would have objected to that.”
There is a page in Frida Kahlo’s diary that, in this writer’s opinion, supports Alvarado’s hypothesis. On it, Kahlo drew pared-down likenesses of her own face, displaying different emotions. Each is encircled by rings resembling bubbles, so that they suggest hand-drawn cousins of contemporary emoji. Writer Carlos Fuentes, in his commentary on Kahlo’s published diaries, wrote of the page: “Through the act of painting Kahlo established herself as an artist, and her many self-portraits are manifestations of her need to demonstrate the various aspects of herself.”
Cantor and the Frida Kahlo Corporation’s FridaMoji aims to engage a new generation with this integral aspect of Kahlo’s work—and, hopefully, to beckon them toward learning about her life, paintings, and legacy in the process.