Picture a nude George Washington riding a white horse, wearing high heels and nothing but a coquettish pout on his lips. Now imagine a portrait of the scene hanging at the National Portrait Gallery in the nation's capital.

That's not much different from what is happening in Mexico's most prestigious museum, Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is displaying a controversial portrait of Emiliano Zapata, one of the country's most beloved revolutionary heroes.

The small painting by 32-year-old artist Fabián Cháirez, called "La Revolución," has provoked outrage and protests by a handful of Zapata's descendants and a farmers union. They are demanding its immediate removal from the show, marking 100 years since the fighter's death.

The protesters, who shouted homophobic slurs outside the museum, rushed into the lavish Art Nouveau lobby, pledging to block the entrance until the painting was taken down.

Usually, Zapata is easily recognizable by his trademark bushy mustache, large sombrero and traditional charro clothing. In turn of the century photographs, he often wears a bandolier and carries a rifle and a sword.

He was a central leader of the peasant revolt that led to land rights for farmers, overthrowing the hacienda system from the small landowning class. Since his death in 1919, he has remained a symbol of social and economic justice for Mexico's poor and working classes.

That is what drew Cháirez to paint him.

It is precisely because Zapata has always been identified with stereotypical masculine imagery, that Cháirez felt a need to create a effeminate version of the war hero, he told PlayGround, a Spanish-language news outlet.

In Cháirez' painting, a naked Zapata looks like a pin-up girl, flirtatiously glancing over his left shoulder as he rides an aroused white stallion. A red, white and green ribbon swirls around his delicate figure. While his mustache is familiar, Zapata's large sombrero is pink and, instead of a boot, the campesino wears a black high-heel. Its stiletto looks like revolver.

When asked about the controversy, the artist said it is "because there are people who think that issues of femininity, race or social position can be used as insults."

"It causes them to reject the feminine ... [because] we are in a super macho society," Cháirez told El Universal.

"There are some people who are bothered by bodies that do not obey the rules. In this case, where is the offense? They see an offense because [Zapata] is feminized," he added.

The war hero's grandson, Jorge Zapata Gonzalez, said he plans to sue Cháirez and Bellas Artes for including the painting in the exhibit.

"We are not going to allow this," he told the AP. "For us as relatives, this denigrates the figure of our general, depicting him as gay."

On Wednesday morning a skirmish broke out near the entrance to the museum, between members of the LGBTQ community and Zapata admirers.

This is the second time the 8-inch by 12-inch painting has been publicly shown. It was on display at the Jose Maria Velasco gallery as recently as 2016. But Cháirez says there was no uproar then. The only concession he was asked to make was to erase the horse's erection.

In speaking with PlayGround, Cháirez laughed at what he said is irony.

"A revolution is just that: moving ideas, moving established things to take them to another place, usually in favor of freedom and dignity," he said. "If Zapata were a contemporary person, he would surely be on our side."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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