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In her lifetime, Frida Kahlo liked to be seen.
It was part of her statement to the world. Described as a “playful exhibitionist” by National Geographic, Kahlo wanted people to fully drink her in for who she was. Her audience was supposed to feel the pain she suffered from the streetcar accident at 18 that left her severely disabled, share in the feelings of hurt and deception caused by the tumultuous relationship she had with her on-again-off-again husband Diego Rivera, and understand the reasoning behind her intensely left-leaning political affiliations — all through her art.
Decades after Kahlo’s death at 47 in 1954, she is a wildly popular artist and feminist icon. Her face is printed on everything from the 500-peso note in Mexico to trendy t-shirts at Urban Outfitters. A majority of her work, however, has been kept at La Casa Azul, her longtime home-turned-museum in Mexico City — until now.
As a part of a special, temporary exhibit, a collection of Frida Kahlo’s art has made its way to a different part of the world — the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
At the Brooklyn Museum, paintings from La Casa Azul and private donors, exclusive video footage, Kahlo’s clothing and makeup, and even a couple of the body casts Kahlo wore (and hand-painted) herself in the 1920s were on display for a limited run this year.
Once the exhibit closed, Aeromexico got the job of bringing the artwork 2,000 miles from Brooklyn back to Mexico. As a major international airline, Aeromexico is familiar with unique cargo — it has flown live beluga whales, tulips from Amsterdam, a myriad of luxury products from clothing to perfume, and even occasional weaponry.
So, what’s an airline to do with a whole Frida Kahlo exhibit? TPG got an inside look at the operation earlier this month.
Prior to its journey, the Frida exhibit had to be taken down, carefully packed and transported to the Delta shipping facility at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK). This required the work of museum officials and a special packing company, Masterpiece International.
This part of the process was kept quite hush-hush for security purposes. Taylor Maatman, director of public relations at the Brooklyn Museum, said that this specific exhibit was particularly complex due to the higher-than-average percentage of Kahlo’s paintings that had to be moved and shipped. “As Kahlo only painted around 150 paintings in her lifetime (a relatively small output for artists of her fame), even having 11 in our show is considered quite special,” said Maatman. And that’s just a portion of what had to be packed carefully — the rest ranged from plaster casts to dresses and makeup from many decades ago.
After all the pieces were properly packed, they were moved to an offsite warehouse where security kept an eye on the priceless works of art. The collection was to be moved in three different shipments — not just because of its size, but also for slightly superstitious purposes.
“It’s not only matter of the space, nor only a matter of the weight,” said Hector Bautista, CX Director for Aeromexico Cargo, in a phone interview. “It’s a safety reason, not to put all the cargo in a single plane. That’s what we do, especially for this type of exhibit, you know.”
Inside the Delta Warehouse
Phase two began with a portion of the exhibit (contents unspecified) arriving at the Delta Cargo facility at JFK, which handles shipments for both Aeromexico and Delta under the One Roof program. The building itself is massive, stretching 130,000 square feet with about 75 staff members on duty at a time. The warehouse also contains a vast variety of cargo, ranging from confidential items sequestered in a fenced-off corner to a huge shipment of live lobsters awaiting a flight to Madrid, Spain.
The Frida packages arrived sometime around 6am, roughly nine hours before the planned departure. It’s customary for most cargo to arrive four to five hours before its scheduled flight so it can pass through proper security screenings.
Screenings are conducted one of two ways. Some cargo is screened by X-ray. However, for the Frida pieces, Aeromexico and Delta used ETD, or Explosive Trace Detector. Frequent fliers might be familiar with ETD from their security checkpoints — it’s the little piece of fabric TSA officers swipe over a traveler’s hands during an extended search. This technology is used to make sure nothing nefarious was on the inside or outside of the Frida packages.
“We would put the fabric around the pieces and then we put it in a machine,” said Bautista. “If there’s a green light, that means that the cargo can be moved,” i.e. shipped. “Especially with this kind of commodity, we try to not open the box because the packing is very specialized,” he added.
The package passed the test and was sent to the next phase: the scale. The Frida package weighed in about 1,430 pounds — which, surprisingly, is considered on the lighter side for what Aeromexico and Delta usually handle. An especially heavy piece of cargo, according to Delta Cargo Operational Manager Mike Judson, falls around 8,000 pounds. A single package maxes out at 13,300 pounds.
The weight needs to be accounted for to know how much fuel the plane is going to need and how much cargo it can carry, Bautista added.
Once weighed, the Frida cargo was carefully loaded onto a Unit Load Device (ULD) pallet, which is designed to lock into the bottom of the aircraft cargo hold. Staff members strapped it down and draped it in strategically layered netting and plastic, and then the shipment was ready to move outside to the staging area.
To the Skies
The staging area is a lot situated outside the cargo facility. There, the Frida packages were loaded onto a low-platform cart and transported over three miles to Terminal 4, where they met up with the Aeromexico Boeing 787–9 Dreamliner scheduled to bring them home to Mexico City.
The flight had arrived from Mexico City around 1pm, two hours before its scheduled 3pm departure.
787–9 Dreamliners have a capacity of 25 tons (55,000 pounds) of cargo without including any passengers’ bags. The maximum dimensions per piece of cargo that can be placed in the compartment are about 12.5 feet wide and 5.2 feet tall. The aircraft also carries up to 276 passengers and their personal belongings, proving that you can fit an astonishing variety of objects on a single aircraft.
Once the plane arrived from Mexico, passenger bags and cargo from the previous journey were unloaded onto the tarmac within 30 minutes. Then, at the same time as the aircraft was being fueled, cleaned and restocked with food, the Frida packages were moved from the platform carts onto a special loader, which adjusted the ULD pallet into proper position before slowly lifting and pushing it into the belly of the beast.
The rest of the aircraft’s cargo was loaded. Then, on schedule at 3pm, flight AM409 took off for Mexico City and Frida Kahlo’s artwork and belongings were headed home to La Casa Azul.
And as for Kahlo’s affinity for being seen? The cargo itself looked like any other box to the naked eye, so passengers boarding the plane had no way of knowing that priceless works of art were sitting just a few feet below their seats.
Featured image by Wyatt Smith/TPG
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