Nude portrait of Emiliano Zapata in high heels sparks fury in Mexico

A new portrait of Emiliano Zapata has caused a firestorm of outrage for its portrayal of the Mexican revolutionary hero striking a seductive pose – clad only in a pink sombrero and high heels.

Furious campesinos stormed one of the country’s most renowned art museums on Thursday to demand the removal of the painting, part of a new exhibition titled Zapata after Zapata that seeks to present alternative views of the Mexican revolution.

Related: Mexico battles over legacy of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata

“This isn’t freedom of expression, it is debauchery! It’s degrading. They can’t exhibit our history that way,” fumed Antonio Medrano, a spokesman for the protesters. “They can’t permit this kind of mockery.”

The small painting by Fabián Cháirez depicts a naked Zapata, astride a white horse. His willowy frame is bound by a ribbon striped with the Mexican tricolor of red, white and green, while his lips pout under his distinctive curved moustache.

Press pictures of the painting provoked strong reactions in Mexico, where Zapata has maintained an unambiguously heroic reputation since the revolution of 1910 – when he called for “reform, freedom, justice and law”.

Some of Zapata’s heirs – with matching droopy moustaches – vowed to take legal action against the exhibition.

“We are not going to allow this,” said Jorge Zapata Gonzalez. “For us as relatives, this denigrates the figure of our general – depicting him as gay.”

Apocryphal tales of a gay romances involving Zapata have been published in recent decades, but historians say there is little evidence to support the stories.

Farm workers block the entrance of the Fine Arts Palace to protest against the painting.
Farm workers block the entrance of the Fine Arts Palace to protest against the painting.Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Mexican politicians of all stripes have long tried to claim Zapata as their own – including the some of his supposed revolutionary allies, who later betrayed and killed him.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared 2019 – the centennial of his death – as the “year of Zapata”, emblazoning the revolutionary leader’s familiar image of a bushy mustache, sombrero and bandolier on government letterhead and promotional materials.

“He’s the least controversial revolutionary strongman and the most ‘leftwing’ in the modern sense,’” said Harim B Gutiérrez, history professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University.

But Zapata’s image is also the most malleable, and it has been appropriated by a host of social causes which may not have much to do with his original struggle to secure a better deal for landless peasants.

“Every 20 years or so something pops up” involving Zapata’s image, said Luis Vargas Santiago, the curator of the current exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Most recently, that “something” has been gender and sexuality. The current exhibition comes at time when Mexico’s LBGTQ communities have become more prominent and women have been more outspoken against the country’s endemic machismo, sexual harassment, and femicides.

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In recent weeks, women protesting in Mexico City against sexual violence have been criticised for spraying graffiti on monuments and centuries-old buildings.

Vargas Santiago said the use of Zapata to advance social agendas followed a similar logic.

“It’s not like Zapata’s image is a fixed symbol which cannot be challenged,” he said. “Just like monuments are questioned, Zapata is also an image that can be subverted.”

Vargas Santiago said some of Zapata’s descendants had expressed support for the exhibition.

The family itself has also split over the use of Zapata’s image – with some descendants applying for a trademark to sell Zapata-branded merchandise such as T-shirts and tequila.

The core question, according to Vargas-Santiago, is: “Who does Zapata belong to? Does he belong to his family members? Does he belong to the government? Or does he belong to everyone? Our response is: he belongs to everyone who identifies with his legacy.”

López Obrador said on Wednesday that the painting didn’t bother him, “but I’m not a member of the Zapata family.” He asked the culture ministry to find a solution to family’s concerns.

Government spokesman Jesús Ramírez Cuevas later tweeted that the government was “committed to artistic freedom and respect for diversity.”

“Yes to freedom, no to censorship. Yes to respect, no to violence,” he wrote.