On the trail of Mexico's greatest pop icon

Sarah Marshall

On a residential street in Mexico City's Coyoacan neighbourhood, churro sellers can't keep up with the demand for their sugary doughnut sticks. They do, after all, have a captive audience. Visitors will wait for up to four hours to enter a sapphire-blue house in the quiet suburb, and remarkably, some don't even know why.

Referring to the property's former resident, one tourist leans over to her friend and asks, 'Who is Frida Kahlo?' - revealing her obvious incomprehension. Although, ironically, even those closest to the late artist would probably say the same.

Political activist, feminist and accidental fashionista, Frida gained notoriety for her deeply honest and often harrowing self-portraits, revealing a life of physical pain caused by a debilitating accident and a heart broken by a tumultuous love affair. After her death in 1954, she morphed into a pop icon, and her image has appeared on T-shirts, slippers, shopping bags and - controversially - a mass manufactured Barbie doll, a symbol of everything Frida stood against.

Yet for all her confessions, the woman famed for her thick, kohl-drawn monobrow also courted mystery, and a new blockbuster exhibition at the V&A London hopes to shed new light on her work and personality. Featuring items locked away in a trunk for 50 years, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up explores the artist's life and her love of bloom-embroidered huipiles (square-cut blouses) and velvet enaguas (long skirts with flounces) from Mexico's Tehuantepec Isthmus, used as tools to disguise her disabilities and worn as a badge of national pride.

In parts, there's no denying Frida's hometown of Mexico City is ugly - but this is also one of Latin America's richest locales of architecture and great art.

A pioneer of the post-revolution muralist movement emerging from the ashes of the Diaz dictatorship which ended in 1920, Frida's husband Diego Rivera was responsible for some of the city's greatest public artworks - enormous murals depicting the history of Mexico, always with a political message and often with a dig at religion too. On the first floor of the National Palace, epic scenes glorify ancient cultures, while Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is scarred with green skin, suggesting syphilis.

Frida shared Rivera's communist beliefs and appears in several murals as a goddess of love or a prostitute - an apt indication of their extreme love and hate relationship. More about the couple's personal life is revealed at Casa Azul (Blue House), their former home, which now operates as a museum and always attracts long queues.

Inside, ornaments of a "sapo" (toad) nod to Frida's endearing nickname for her uglier, overweight husband, and separate beds suggest partially independent lives. In the canopy above Frida's mattress, a mirror allowed her to paint while bedridden. Along with a wheelchair, it's a reminder of the physical trauma caused by childhood polio and a bus accident at the age of 18.

Casa Azul has the largest collection of Frida's work, wardrobe and artefacts - many of which will be exhibited for the first time outside Mexico as part of London's V&A exhibition. Elsewhere, it's very hard to find traces of her life; at the architecturally striking Museo Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo - where the couple lived in linked apartments for a few years, for example, Rivera's work eclipses anything belonging to his wife.

What does survive of Frida, though, is her defiant spirit and creative drive, which flows through every pocket of the country today.

One of the most active artistic hubs is Michoacan hilltown San Miguel de Allende, a colonial jewel box in the central highlands, 300km north of Mexico City. Its beauty, coupled with a reputation for being the safest place in Mexico, has attracted hundreds of ex-pat Americans to settle here, explaining why Thanksgiving is celebrated every year.

Designer boutiques overflow with floaty silk kaftans and more than 120 upscale galleries are filled with works of modern art, but this is still a proudly traditional community - the sort of place where old men doff their caps when strolling past a church door.

In the 1930s, artists gravitated towards the town's captivating light, and canvas-worthy scenes peer through every narrow cobblestone street. At the Bellas Artes, a famous mural was left unfinished by Diego Rivera's contemporary David Alfaro Siqueiros, and although Frida never came here, the touristic city has taken her to its heart.

Salmon-pink spires twirl like unicorn horns from the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel cathedral - a view perfectly captured from my rooftop terrace at the Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada. Spread over a series of private houses, with fountains tumbling from private courtyards and flowers climbing stone walls, it's as close as you can get to living and breathing the Mexican Renaissance - a period of post-revolution glory when creativity flourished. A supporter of the arts, the hotel has employed its own artist in residence, able to give lessons in gardens close to the spring, El Chorro, where the town was originally founded.

One of the largest design centres is converted textile factory Fabrica La Aurora, where Carlos Noyola runs an antiques shop. An elderly, genteel gentleman, who's highly regarded in his trade, he claims to have a collection of items once belonging to Frida Kahlo.

When I visit unannounced, he happily opens a trunk filled with origami-folded letters, annotated books and sketches, all supposedly created by the artist's hand.

Rejected by Mexican officials as fakes, Noyola still protests their authenticity - telling me some of Frida's close friends who viewed the collection cried when they recognised her voice in the disputed artefacts.

Determined to prove their authenticity, he's hired a lawyer, although upon reflection, I wonder whether it really matters if the collection is real or not. Regardless, it sums up the fervour and controversy surrounding Frida Kahlo, even 64 years after her death. In her painting, make-up and clothing, the revolutionary artist was an enigma - but she's now woven into the fabric of Mexican culture, just like one of her treasured Tehuantepec embroidered designs.