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¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 11: Confronting Machismo Through LGBTQ Art in Mexico

El Arte no Calla!,” a new monthly Spanish-language podcast of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), explores art, freedom of expression, and human rights in Latin America. In each episode, ARC's Latin America Representative Alessandro Zagato will invite a different guest to help analyze the varying states of artistic freedom in Latin America and the violations that artists and activists are suffering in the region.

¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 11: Confronting Machismo Through LGBTQ Art in Mexico

In celebration of Pride Month, this episode of "¡El Arte no Calla!" features Fabián Cháirez, a prominent plastic artist from Mexico whose work proposes a reconceptualization of the hegemonic national masculinities. In 2019, his work “La Revolución,” which portrayed the national revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata on a horse, was exhibited at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, causing a major controversy that led to attacks and death threats against Cháirez. This event paved the way for a national debate on art, machismo, and references for masculinity. 

Alessandro Zagato: Welcome Fabian! Can you tell us about your artistic trajectory?

Fabian Chairez: I am a plastic artist from Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. I studied visual arts and subsequently moved to Mexico City to find a market that could actually consume the type of work that I was producing. My work relates to sexual and gender dissidence and racialized people. It attempts to give back dignity to the expressions and dissidence of these groups. I exhibited my work in several places here in Mexico (at the José Maria Velasco gallery and the Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes), as well as in Brussels, Spain, the United States, and London.  

A.Z.: Many of your works, or at least the most well-known, give a new meaning to symbols from Mexico’s historic and visual tradition. Why did you decide to work with these national symbols? 

 F.C.: Mainly because of the lack in this tradition of positive references on racialized and sexually dissident people. Through my work, I started to investigate and question the fact that the majority of the national icons are necessarily represented as male and white, or alluding to heterosexuality. The LGBTQ history has been systematically overlooked, but there are many heroes and icons in our history who have built our country, and this aspect of their life has been hidden - they were not recognized as part of the LGBTQ community. This is regrettable because history is not just heterosexual. 

“The LGBTQ history has been systematically overlooked, but there are many heroes and icons in our history who have built our country, and this aspect of their life has been hidden - they were not recognized as part of the LGBTQ community. ”

A.Z.: June is LGTBQ Pride month. What are your thoughts on the human rights and freedom of expression situation for artists who focus on LGBTQ topics in Mexico?

F.C: I think that a lot of work is still to be done. Many institutions are more proactive regarding LGBTQ issues but continue to have an attitude of suspicion and apprehension. There is not a sincere and critical dialogue on this topic. They seem to use it to tick a box, to comply with a standard, but there are still so many topics to cover and issues to address, and the spaces that we are being offered are not enough. Therefore, as artists, we always need to demand those spaces — not just during Pride Month, but always. The violence does not stop, and visibility needs to be given all the time.  

A.Z.: As an artist who is part of this movement, you have been attacked in the past. I would like you to tell us about the controversy generated by a painting of yours that was exhibited in Bellas Artes, and which represents the figure of Emiliano Zapata [a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920] in a way that breaks with the tradition of representing this historical figure. 

F:C.: I did this painting in 2014. It was exhibited several times, and in 2019 it became part of a governmental exhibition titled “Emiliano Zapata after Zapata,” a journey through the visual representations of this character throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in Mexico and the United States. The exhibit includes all the different representations of Zapata that were produced over time by prominent Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueros, and many others. This initiative was interesting because it represented many points of view. Over time, Zapata was appropriated by different struggles and protest movements -- not just by peasants, but also by students, feminist movements, indigenous peoples and so on. 

I was included because the curators felt that my work embodied a sort of manifesto of the struggle of sexual and gender dissidences. However, many people were vocal about their disagreement. This is because the figure of Zapata also operates as a national reference for masculinity - he represents the values of the Mexican understanding of “macho.” And the fact that I had represented him as a symbol of sexual dissidence produced aggressive reactions, demonstrations that demanded the removal of the painting, and death threats addressed to me and my family. It also generated a nearly two-week debate on whether or not to remove my work from the exhibition. It was interesting because everywhere in the country, people were discussing my painting, which ended up being part of the national imaginary.  We can interpret this event as a heavy blow to machismo and sexism. I feel particularly proud that it was me, through my work, who actually started this public debate.  


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