MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A painting depicting Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata naked but for high heels and a pink sombrero, astride an aroused white horse, has sparked controversy in socially conservative Mexico, prompting protests that briefly flared into violence.
Zapata is widely considered a national hero and especially revered in rural Mexico. He helped sweep away the hacienda system in the early 20th century, replacing it with small holdings and land collectives.
The uproar over the painting has turned a spotlight on issues of freedom of expression and tolerance in Mexico.
“This issue of the painting of Emiliano Zapata has generated controversy,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Wednesday. “I am asking the culture ministry to address this issue so that mediation is sought.”
Protesters who described themselves as part of the National Union of Agricultural Workers burst into the fine arts museum in Mexico City on Tuesday, demanding that the painting be taken down and burned. The demonstration soon turned violent.
Two men were physically attacked “at the hands of people who hurled homophobic insults,” the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature (INBAL) said, adding that it gave them “necessary medical attention and the corresponding legal support.”
Members of the media were also attacked.
Mexico City is home to the country’s most visible gay community and couples freely express affection in many parts of the capital, which has equal marriage legislation, as do some 19 of the 31 states.
Fabian Chairez, the artist who painted the Zapata portrait, said, “I use these elements like the sombrero and horse and create a proposal that shows other realities, other ways of representing masculinity.”
Despite progress toward marriage equality, outside the capital attitudes differ sharply, and there is often impunity toward discrimination, while reports of violence against homosexuals are common.
“Of course it’s fine if they don’t like the painting, they can criticize the exhibition, but to seek to censor freedom of expression, that’s different,” said Luis Vargas Santiago, curator of the exhibit ‘Emiliano Zapata after Zapata’.
Eliseo Añorve, an elderly man who was sitting in front of the museum, said Zapata “was a tough figure, a manly figure that took up arms to defend the peasantry and the whole republic … he is a hero of our revolution and a respectable leader who doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed.”
Reporting by Rodolfo Pena Rojo; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Clarence Fernandez