The Provocative and Risqué Rise of Painter Fabian Cháirez

Painting helped the artist find a place to exist as a brown, queer Mexican.

A man stands with arms crossed in front of a classical looking painting of a woman holding her breast while an angle places a crown on her head
Fabian Cháirez with ‘Tenochtitlán’. Nick Hilden

In December of 2019, Mexico City’s iconic Bellas Artes Palace was besieged by a throng of protesters demanding that one of the paintings on display be taken down—burned, even. The painting in question was La Revolución by Fabián Cháirez, which portrays national hero Emiliano Zapata on horseback, naked save for a pair of high heels and a pink sombrero. His heels are made of gun barrels, and his horse is armed with a raging hard-on.

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“I was looking for a combative reference—situation of power,” Cháirez explained when we spoke at his Mexico City studio just a few weeks shy of exactly three years later. “This painting was important to recognizing my personal fight but at the same time the fight for my community.”

The show at Bellas Artes made that fight literal, with enraged protesters assaulting the queer counter-protesters.

SEE ALSO: The Art of Mexico City, On and Off the Beaten Path

“It was a storm,” Cháirez laughs, but then his face becomes serious. “It wasn’t funny. I had a lot of people writing to me on social media saying that they wanted to kill me. Like hundreds. They showed pictures of my family, saying they were gonna die. It’s okay if they mess with me, but not my family. That changed things.”

A few days later a group of some 300 activists, community leaders, and local politicians gathered before the Art Deco-domed palace to denounce the violence. Zapata es de todos, Cháirez told the crowd. Zapata is for everyone.

Born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez—the remote capital of Chiapas, a state with a famously rebellious reputation—Cháirez was not new to the fight for queer recognition, though this was the first time it had thrust him onto the national stage. Before that, his had been a more personal battle.

“Discovering my sexuality was complicated because Tuxtla is kind of conservative and racist,” he says. “In Tuxtla, they really appreciate the white vision of the world, and there is a lot of prejudice against the LGBT community.”

According to Cháirez, there’s a phrase—if you’re white and you have money, you’re gay, but if not, you’re a faggot—that encapsulates the kinds of things he heard at that time. “It was complicated to develop my art there,” he said. “I decided to become an artist because it was the way I embraced who I am and fought against all the negative stereotypes against the LGBT community. My painting was an escape to find a place to exist as a brown, queer Mexican.”

A man with a small beard stands holding a machete in front of a wall of paintings
Artist Fabian Cháirez. Nick Hilden

This need became particularly acute after he and a partner had a near-death experience at the hands of a knife-wielding assailant.

“That was important to my career,” he reflected. “When someone tries to kill you, you try to understand why people hate something as simple as sexual orientation. That gave me the power to fight with my art against violence.”

His family offered little support, taking him to church after he came out of the closet in a bid to transform him into a “normal” straight man. It didn’t work. “They don’t have a good reference for LGBT people,” he explained. “Or all their references are negative. We still have negative stereotypes on Mexican TV and media. So that was influential because I thought, Well, I don’t even have a good reference, because they’re all from a straight-normative view. Art was the opportunity to represent myself.”

Years passed, and then on September 15, 2012—which happens to be the Mexican Independence Day—Cháirez flew to Mexico City to attend a workshop for artists, telling his parents he’d be there for a few months. He’s been there ever since.

Cháirez honed his craft and earned money by decorating and painting for local gay clubs. Then came the uproar accompanying La Revolución, which today hangs in Barcelona’s Museu de l’Art Prohibit—the Museum of Forbidden Art—alongside masters like Ai Weiwei, Banksy, Warhol, and Klimt.

“I think these kinds of paintings and manifestations like what happened at Bellas Artes are important,” he asserts. “We think that everything is okay because queer people have some space in some shows or we have our own YouTube channels and some accounts on social media, but here in Mexico they’re still killing us. There are many things that we’re still fighting for.”

Next Cháirez turned his eye to religion in a collection called “Los plumas ardiendo al vuelo”—”Feathers Burning in Flight”—where he fused the sacred with the suggestive. Drawing influence from Mexican and European painters like Saturnino Herrán, Paula Rego, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco, these works applied classic realist techniques to the creation of surreal, sexualized religious imagery. A pair of cardinals lick the melting wax from an enormous candle—The Coming of the Lord. A nun stands over a kneeling angel, a rosary dangling from the pursed lips of the former like spit into the mouth of the latter—The Annunciation. A leashed priest on his hands and knees laps from a wine chalice—The Lamb of God. And so on. The colors are vibrant, the subject matter unabashedly profane and the overall effect downright sexy. These proved to be a big hit on social media.

Two paintings displayed on a gray brick wall
‘La inocencia de las bestias’ and ‘Saturno devorando a su hijo’. Nick Hilden

“I didn’t want to paint this subject for a long time because to me it is an easy way to provoke people, and I like complicated things,” says Cháirez. He felt the theme had been thoroughly explored in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so he wanted to avoid retreading worn ground. But then a Catholic-themed gay club near Bellas Artes asked him to do a mural, and Cháirez accepted because he needed the money. “But also because at that time the conservatives started protesting against abortion and LGBT rights,” he said. “I thought: Well, if they are messing with us I’m gonna mess with them. But using their reference. I was trying to not be in the same place other artists were before. For example, I like to play with the idea of something erotic without being literal. The question of the double moral—you are hiding something that is seen. I’ve always been a huge fan of religious art. I think it’s the only good thing that religion has given to the world.”

In 2022, Cháirez began delving into another religion: football. The first of these pieces—El Vergel, which portrays a troubled young player reclined upon the field amidst a flurry of legs, pink rose blossoms strewn upon the green grass—was displayed at Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art.

“That painting was the beginning of my exploration of childhood and masculinity,” he explains. “It was part of my evolution of trying to understand and explore my life as a queer person in Mexico, but also to understand masculinity. I’m using football as a subject because it has a lot of influence in Mexico and America Latina and everywhere. I use football uniforms as a metaphor for patriarchy—this thing you have to wear because if you don’t wear it, you’re part of the enemy.”

In addition to painting, Cháirez is currently in the process of establishing an art academy.

“We want to give the opportunity to LGBT people to learn techniques and work on their self-representation,” he says. “This knowledge is important.”

Cháirez closes our conversation with his advice for artists.

“It is important to be patient, to be brave, and to try to show to the world your way of seeing reality. Question everything. That’s something that I learned when I was a child, and it helped me to find my way and my place in the world.”

Cháirez’s “La Revolución” is on display at Museu de l’Art Prohibit in Barcelona.

The Provocative and Risqué Rise of Painter Fabian Cháirez