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Farmworker Unions and LGBTQ Activists Clash Over Nude Portrait of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata

At a Mexico City museum, farmworker unions demanded the painting of the Mexican Revolution leader be destroyed. Their protest escalated to a clash with LGBTQ activists, amounting to violence and use of homophobic slurs.

Fabián Cháirez’s painting “La Revolución” (2014), on view at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes (courtesy of Secretaría de Cultura del Gobierno de la Ciudad de México)

A protest by representatives of farmworker unions at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City escalated into a violent confrontation with LGBTQ+ activists on Tuesday, December 10, around noon. The protests were sparked by a painting of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata by artist Fabián Cháirez, on view in the exhibition Emiliano. Zapata Después de Zapata.

“La Revolución” (2014), which depicts a nude Zapata donning a pink hat and high heels suggestively straddling a horse, was condemned by members of the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores Agrícolas (UNTA) and other similar agricultural groups for its characterization of the revolutionary. The clashes around Cháirez’s painting come at a tumultuous time for the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL), the larger institution that oversees the museum, which was closed by unionized workers protesting alleged lack of payments on Wednesday morning. The museum remains closed to the public as of this afternoon.

According to El Universal, Álvaro López Ríos, a representative of UNTA, led a storming of the museum around noon on Tuesday to demand that the painting be removed from view and destroyed. Protesters blocked the entrance and chanted “Burn it, burn it!”; they later hurled homophobic insults and other slurs at members of LGBTQ+ communities who had approached the scene in counter-protest. One of them was journalist and activist Antonio Bertran, whom López Ríos hit with a water bottle. A harrowing video shows another young man being violently kicked and beaten by protesters outside the museum.

Hyperallergic spoke to Luis Vargas Santiago, curator of the exhibition Emiliano. Zapata Después de Zapata. Organized in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Zapata’s death, the show includes 141 works that trace the life of images of the leader. “La Revolución” is included in a section titled “Contemporary Revolutions,” which focuses on representations of Zapata created in the last 50 years. Many of the works in that grouping, says Vargas, speak to cultural developments in the 1980s and ’90s in Mexico, when many artists began to create unconventional, and often deliberately feminine, representations of male historical figures. “Cháirez’s painting proposes that other representations of heroes are possible, ones that depart from virile, hegemonic masculinity. There can be revolution in other kinds of bodies,” says Vargas.

Cháirez’s representation in particular has incensed those who prefer to remember only a conventionally masculine image of Zapata, widely known as a principal figure of the Mexican Revolution, an early and important advocate for peasant rights in Mexico, and the namesake of the Zapatista movement. To farmworkers and ordinary Mexicans alike, he remains a beloved symbol of empowerment for poor and historically marginalized communities. But Vargas points out the presence of many other portraits of Zapata in the exhibition that could have sparked controversy, including a work by artist Daniel Salazar depicting Zapata wearing an apron and holding a broom and laundry detergent, titled “El Mandilón” (a derogatory term that refers to a man who has been emasculated).

Daniel Salazar, “El Mandilón (The Househusband)” (1995) (courtesy of the artist and Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes)

“What this polemic reveals is that Mexico is still filled with homophobic machos. Because what bothered people was not an image of a Zapata ‘mandilón,’ a barbaric Zapata, or even the cannibalistic Zapata that appears in revolutionary cartoons,” reflects Vargas, describing other works in the show. “What bothered people was an effeminate Zapata.”

Vargas recounts that many of the members of agricultural unions who protested on Tuesday claimed ownership of Zapata’s image. They were invited into the museum to view the entire exhibition, which also includes traditional images of the leader, but they refused.

A photograph of Zapata by H.J. Gutiérrez, ca. 1915, also included in the current exhibition at Bellas Artes (courtesy of Colección Carlos Monsiváis / Museo del Estanquillo)

Some accounts cite Zapata’s grandson, Jorge Zapata González, vowing to sue both the artist and the museum if the work is not removed from the exhibition. But in a press release published this morning, Zapata’s descendants formally dissociated from the diverse agricultural groups that protested the work, including UNTA, and denounced their violence toward the LGBTQ+ community. The Zapata family and representatives from both INBAL and Mexico’s Secretariat of Culture met on Wednesday, and following a walkthrough of the exhibition led by Vargas, all groups decided that Cháirez’s painting will remain on view.

However, the work will now be accompanied by a wall label expressing the Zapata family’s “disagreement with [Cháirez’s] interpretation.” On social media, well-known Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina expressed his dissent of that decision, arguing that amending culture is a form of censorship and that artworks and exhibitions are “closed texts, unless they are explicitly presented as participatory.” 

The museum has also announced that it will no longer circulate an image of the painting as part of its official publicity campaign, a decision that Vargas says will not affect the work’s visibility given how much it has already been disseminated. 

“They wanted to censor the painting,” Vargas said of the protesters during our phone interview. “Instead, they’ve ensured that it will be inscribed in history.”

Vargas also says the outpour of support for the LGBTQ+ community on social media has been inspiring, with thousands denouncing the protesters’ attempts at artistic censorship and their bigoted interpretation of the work, voicing their solidarity with counter-protesters, and issuing a clarion call for creative freedom. He mentions that Cháirez’s portrait of Zapata has already been appropriated and transformed into multiple memes, including by workers protesting lack of payments. In a meme shared on Twitter, Cháirez’s painting is overlaid with the message “INBA PAY US ALREADY.”

On Wednesday, LGBTQ+ activists waved a rainbow flag outside the museum in two manifestations of support for the artist and the museum, and Vargas says additional demonstrations are planned for Friday and Sunday. 

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