The Pin-Up Revolutionary
“In Mexico we have a very peculiar relationship with violence,” says Fabián Cháirez, ensconced in a dining room chair in his apartment in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico. It is the same place he was sitting when he learned of the brutal event that would make him the most controversial Mexican artist of the twenty-first century. Three months since the death threats engendered by the scandal over his painting La Revolución, he can speak calmly about what happened.
“There’s a comparison that I made once when I was on a two-month trip to Europe,” Cháirez reflects. “I saw that if people were talking on their phone and someone came up behind them, they wouldn’t even turn around to look at who it was. They don’t have that reflex of ‘Who is following me?’ Here, if you come up behind a person, we have certain reactions, instincts. It’s not for nothing — the violence in Mexico is horrible. So of course, if someone protests you, challenges your ideals, there’s going to be an immediate reaction.”
I wanted to write about Cháirez’s work and the rabid national polemic it riled to convey to my fellow Bay Area residents how lucky we are when it comes to the acceptance of dissident art — but also what that relative comfort has done to our capacity for protest. I wanted to tell you about the community who showed up to support Cháirez and La Revolución: in areas where people live close to the edge, tangible dissent can be a fact of life.
Then, just after our interview, COVID-19 flexed its viral muscles and shook us to the core. I know that the concept of our own privilege may not seem compelling to US residents whose entire industries teeter on the brink of disappearance and whose at-risk loved ones fear contagion during essential trips to the grocery store. But this pandemic has shown that it can both create change and reinforce standards. Into the latter category falls the troubled, tragically unequal relationship between the United States and Mexico. As of now, COVID-19 border restrictions put in place by the US have worsened the situation for refugees in Mexico considerably. Numerous cruise ships that began their journey in the United States have unloaded their potentially infected passengers in Puerta Vallarta and Cabos San Lucas after being barred entry into their home harbors. No, Madonna; COVID-19 will never be “the great equalizer.” But that is not to say that this situation does not include opportunities for solidarity.
Cháirez did not set out to become a protest artist. Rather, the Chiapas-born painter was spurred to create so that he could see people like himself represented within the collective imagination. His softly lit portraits reimagine a world in which effeminate queers are heroes, religious leaders, baroque beauties; they are bathed in roses and enthroned in towering maguey plants, accessories that refract the natural luminescence of real-life models. Cháirez often cites among his influences Julio Galán, the queer Mexican painter whose neo-expressionism in turn echoes Frida Kahlo’s introspective flights of fancy, and his portraiture use national icons to the same effect, a post-neo-Mexicanismo that hews close to the country’s rich visual heritage even as it breaks from its traditional heterocentrism and obstinate gender norms. Well before the scandal surrounding La Revolución, Cháirez had become a force in the queer-ification of Mexican popular culture, painting large scale versions of his portraits — among them amorous lucha libre fighters and ecstatic lesbian nuns — on the walls of many of CDMX’s favorite queer watering holes, including Blow Bar, Marrakech, and the Catholic kitsch palace that is La Purísima.
Cháirez knew early on that La Revolución, his 2014 painting of an effeminate Emiliano Zapata, would be a catalyst for controversy. The beloved general of the Mexican Revolution constitutes a national ideal of charro masculinity, serving as a primary inspiration for the macho leading men of Mexico’s golden age of cinema.
“Zapata has been used as a symbol of many different struggles, from feminism to the Zapatista movement, the campesinos,” Cháirez explains. “I’ve always said if you are not represented, represent yourself. I project myself into the people I paint, and among them was Zapata.” In La Revolución, the general is an arched back pin-up model, naked save for his flamboyant moustache, a wide-brimmed pink sombrero, and black high heel (complete with cocked pistol). His galloping white horse sports a gallant erection.
In 2015, Cháirez was compelled by the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature to Photoshop out the steed’s phallus so the painting could be on an exhibition catalogue cover. Such restrictions are not unknown to Bay Area artists. Oakland’s Xandra Ibarra is currently working with the ACLU to address the San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture’s February removal of her 2014 video Spictacle II: La Tortillera from an exhibition on grounds of obscenity. Though this is the most high-profile instance of her art being censored, it is not the first. “I have been asked to remove, change, cover, put work in peep boxes, and use signage — not just in galleries but also during open studios,” she told me.
But there are few precedents in the modern-day Bay Area — or even the US at large — for the tumult that unfolded around La Revolución. Curator Luis Vargas selected the work to be included in a prominent survey of Zapata representations that opened in December in the golden-roofed Palacio de Bellas Artes, the country’s most recognizable arts institution. Growing media coverage of Cháirez’s work generated threatening responses like, “I think Zapata would have shot [Cháirez] or ordered him killed.” A perfect storm was building.
The squall broke when Zapata’s grandson held a press conference in Cuernavaca denouncing La Revolución. “Many people, many people have asked that we go to Bellas Artes to take down the painting and burn it,” Jorge Zapata González told reporters. “We are respectful of institutions and are going to be well-behaved. But we will not permit them to denigrate the character of our general in this way.”
Goaded by his words, hundreds of farmworkers association members showed up to block the door of Bellas Artes, demanding that La Revolución be removed. Cháirez tells me a museum staffer called to implore him to stay home that day for his own safety. Indeed, physical violence broke out between the UNTA protestors and a group of queer media workers. “They were yelling slurs at us,” says Antonio Bertran, a journalist who has published books of interviews with Mexico City’s LGBTQIA+ leaders and was involved in the now-infamous physical altercation. “I told them, ‘Yes, I’m sidosa [derogatory term for a person living with HIV/AIDS]. I’ve had HIV for ten years and I haven’t died, what do you think about that?’” The queers started to yell the Zapata rallying cry “Libertad! Libertad!” And then the mood turned. A water bottle was thrown at Bertran’s head. He ran, and when he looked back, two of his companions were being kicked and beaten.
Cháirez was devastated that his work had been a catalyst for violence. And the circus had only just begun. “Every news article [from then on] was about me, about me, about me,” he remembers. “It was like an episode of Black Mirror.”
On December 13, his birthday, a terrified Cháirez faced a press conference outside Bellas Artes. History belonged to everyone, he said. The struggle lives on. In front of him was a sea of supporters: queers dressed up as his Zapata, vogue dancers who detonated defiant dips and spins in honor of his painting.
These protestors knew the importance of a swift and tangible counterreaction to threat of injustice. Mexico is home to many atrocities, but also to communities unafraid to fight for their rights. The Mexican women’s movement was radicalized last fall by two consecutive cases of on-duty law enforcement officials raping underage women in a single week. When security did not improve by International Women’s Day, activists marked the holiday with vast, impassioned marches in cities across the country. Mexico City’s edition was comprised of the most women I have ever seen in one place. The next day, women disappeared in a nationwide strike. Public transportation and offices emptied, domestic labor was left undone.
A similar sense of urgency is shared by Mexicans living with HIV/AIDS, and their supporters, who blocked the road in front of a Mexico City public health insurance building to protest frightening shortages of antiretroviral medication in public clinics on February 21. Weeks later, in a hideous affirmation of the crisis, Mexico City’s iconic queer performer Superperra died, apparently from having given up on maintaining her regimen of meds.
“Many people are becoming aware of these social issues,” says Cháirez. “We can see that things are bad and we are demanding change.”
The violence that occurred over La Revolución spurred an already angry LGBTQIA+ community into action. Images of the defiant queers at Bellas Artes who refused to see their identity the subject of hatred and ignorance were spread across the country by the media and social networks.
“What started out as a search to represent myself, also represents other people,” Cháirez reflects.
Bellas Artes did not remove the work, though a plaque was hung next to La Revolución noting the Zapata clan’s disapproval — a disappointment to many of the painting’s supporters who saw the move as the state’s validation of hate speech. Cháirez’s profile rose through the controversy and he received multiple offers for the painting, eventually selling it to a Spanish collection for what he calls “a good price.” So famous is the work Bertran refers to as “the new icon of a new revolution,” many believed an April Fool’s Day news parody that the Museum of Modern Art had bought La Revolución for $6 million. And Zapata is having his moment as a queer icon whether his descendants like it or not — Mexico City queer porn house Mekos Films is hard at work on a full-length film with El General himself as the protagonist.
None of this is to say that queer art will be better protected or promoted by the Mexican government in the future. Indeed, Cháirez sees his harrowing experience not as a battle won, but a wakeup call. “I don’t think that it solved anything,” he says. “But it showed that there’s still so much work left to do.” He has begun a new series of paintings exploring how children are indoctrinated with toxic masculinity. The painter hopes others will be inspired in their own battles, that the fight for La Revolución births support for queer art outside of Mexico City, where in many places LGBTQIA+ acceptance has yet to make necessary strides. Admittedly, no such move from the federal government has been announced.
It is worth considering how the lessons of La Revolución could resonate beyond the land of Zapata. Even if the Bay Area retains its gringo privilege throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the virus has exposed our system’s flaws as few cataclysms have; perhaps it brings us closer to waking from the stupor engendered by a global power center, encourages us to more willingly sacrifice for social change. In the pain and suffering this era will bring, during which protest in the traditional sense is limited by contagion prevention, art can provide moments of catalyzation, producing images that clarify our values and distilling them into easily understood messages for far-flung friends and factions. Think ACT UP and Queer Nation’s crucial use of graphic design, or The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s wielding of performance as political cudgel. In terms of international solidarity, COVID-19 will not affect us all in the same way, but all will need to fight against the crises it engenders or accelerates — a primer, if we learn our lesson well, for the global struggle that must be pitched against climate change and other symptoms of unfettered capitalism. La Revolución shows that art’s use as a tool for provocation is not dead, that it’s still capable of mobilizing and moving us.
“It’s important to make other realities visible,” says Cháirez. Perhaps it’s not for nothing that his own reality cracked open this winter. Through the fissures, others glimpsed the possibility of justice.