Critics’ Picks

Diego Rivera, Paisaje zapatista (Zapatista Landscape), 1915, oil on canvas, 56 x 48".

Diego Rivera, Paisaje zapatista (Zapatista Landscape), 1915, oil on canvas, 56 x 48".

Mexico City

“Emiliano. Zapata despues de Zapata”

El Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes
Avenida Juárez y Eje Central
November 27, 2019–February 16, 2020

Mónica Castillo’s Plato de Zapata (Zapata’s Dish), 1987, depicts the severed head of Emiliano Zapata, the worshipped agrarian leader of the Mexican Revolution, served on a platter surrounded by forks and knives. In a country where the past is idealized to such extent that it becomes fixed, its (male) protagonists turned into secular saints, the vision is, to say the least, a strident one. However, in this exhibition—whose discourse has been blunted by histrionic protesters—curator Luis Vargas Santiago successfully argues that Zapata’s popularity eclipses his untouchability: Culling over one hundred and forty works made from 1906 to today, Vargas Santiago conducts a nuanced iconographical study on the recurring appropriation, state-sponsored and otherwise, of the folk hero’s likeness.

Organized chronologically, the first nuclei of the exhibition explore how Zapata’s symbolism crystallized within the national visual culture: Sporting a prominent mustache, charro suit, and wide top hat, and carrying a cross-body rifle, the man was quickly iconized as an avatar of macho nationalism. Diego Rivera proves crucial to this endeavor—his easel paintings like the Cubist Paisaje zapatista, 1915, and murals (the sketches for several are included here) widely promoted the representation. Still, if nationalist rhetoric often leverages the masses’ cult-like devotion for the revolutionary’s image, the affectivity surrounding Zapata’s apparition returns like a haunting in the survey’s later rooms. His reclamation manifests most famously in the Zapatista movement—addressed in posters and videos by Mariana Botey, and in photographs by Antonio Turok and Pedro Valtierra—but the exhibition also locates Zapata’s resurrection in other Leftist movements: feminist struggles, Chicanx movements, grassroots activism, gender subversion.

As hinted by Castillo’s painting, the relation of Mexican culture to Zapata’s image is a cannibalistic one, ready to be devoured for any purpose—emancipatory, paternalistic, or otherwise.