The Many Faces of Zapata
¡Zapata Vive! at the Jonson Gallery
In 1919, Emiliano Zapata—horse trainer, sharecropper and leader of the Liberation Army of the South—fell into a trap and was killed by Mexican troops. The only photographs taken of Zapata without his permission were of his dead body, dumped on the street by Venustiano Carranza's constitutionalists. Overnight, he became a martyr. Nearly a century later, images of Zapata are still used in art and political propaganda, often as a revolutionary symbol of the rights of the poor and voiceless.
¡Zapata Vive!, a new exhibit currently showing at UNM's Jonson Gallery, is more then just an art show; it's a history lesson. It depicts one man's transformation from aggressive visionary into timeless icon. When Theresa Avila was offered an opportunity to curate a show at the Jonson Gallery, she felt her Master of Art History thesis research on Zapata would make a good exhibit. "For me, the image of Zapata allows me to explore my heritage," Avila says. "I've been calling it a project—for a lifetime."
The exhibit is laid out like a two-way timeline, one entry starting with historical images of Zapata, the other with contemporary art depicting the Mexican revolutionary. Each entrance provides a different reading. I entered the gallery from the back door, which lead me to the contemporary art side. I knew relatively little about the man, and the ground-level entry gave me a glimpse of the mediated, iconic Zapata. The images roused my curiosity about the political and artistic reasons for Zapata's rise to cultural hero.
The caricature Avila chose to paint on the entry wall depicts his signature features: a long mustache, a large sombrero, sharp eyes. Hanging on the wall adjacent to the caricature is "El Mandilon," an ink-jet print by Daniel Salazar. In it, Zapata wears his signature hat, ammo belts draped across his shoulders. With cutouts like a paper doll, he's dressed as a housewife in an apron, holding a box of Tide instead of his gun and a straw broom in place of his saber. Salazar seems to use Zapata's image to explore modern Mexican notions of masculinity, using a politically charged figure to platform a sensitive subject.
An oil painting by Alfredo Arrequin called "El Joven Zapata" is an art deco mosaic, creating the unmistakable image of Zapata composed of small Mayan faces, a tribute to southern Mexican indigenous heritage. On the facing wall, a depiction of Zapata the justice fighter calling Mexicans to arms in a political poster recalls the image of American poster-boy Uncle Sam.
In the historical half of the show, one of the Gráfica Popular image portfolios on display depicts Zapata numerous times within a field of crops and as a fighter for the people. In Salvador Romero's "Muerte en Chinameca," Zapata's dead body becomes one with the land like a mythological sleeping giant.
Concluding the show, or beginning it if you enter from the top of the gallery, are photographs and caricatures of Zapata. The early photos of Zapata were posed and premeditated. They capture his iconic features represented in the contemporary works. According to the placard, Zapata knew that photography could help to construct a strong impression and generate legitimacy for himself and his agrarian reform. The caricatures are really political cartoons, depicting Zapata as a villain, a slayer of the common Mexican, and surrounding him with death—the government's way of controlling the image of Zapata and his movement.
Cultural icons saturate our society. Images of certain celebrities and politicians can be identified just by key features or catchphrases. Zapata's rise to cultural hero has inspired great artwork, and this exhibit provides documentation of the creation of his enduring legend.