The Campesino Leader Zapata
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More about The Campesino Leader Zapata

mhampton's picture


It’s New York, 1931, and one of your buddies mentions that Diego Rivera is in town at the MoMA. All you wanna do is get hammered... But you can’t because prohibition is still a thing.

Rivera’s supposed to be some art hotshot though, so maybe you’ll drop some dough on a painting. But when you get to the museum, you’re appalled and insulted. These paintings are… political?! One painting in particular, The Campesino Leader Zapata, makes your stomach turn. Peasants aren't supposed to be overthrowing urbanites. A city dweller like yourself has never been more offended. This dude needs to stay in his lane. Okay, it’s not 1931, and you’re probably drunk while reading this because prohibition ended a long time ago. But that jarring reaction to Rivera’s work was more common than you’d think in his time. When his exhibition opened to the public, it was only the MoMA’s second show for a living artist. The first being Henri Matisse. So naturally, art aficionados were hype. Rivera was regarded as one of the illest artists of his time. Imagine Banksy showing up to your niece’s birthday. It was that level of awesomeness.

Rivera was radical about his politics, and that was prevalent in his work. That’s why a painting depicting Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata as a hero of the people could have caught so many off guard. Zapata physically fought his government for fair and equal treatment, and died because of it. Because Rivera never shied away from expressing personal political views in his art, the dynamic between his work and those who paid to produce and view it grew fragile. It’s not too different from the division we’re facing today with athletes, fans, and corporations. In 2018, people are burning Nikes because the company is in solidarity with an athlete who kneels during the national anthem in protest to police brutality.

Rivera stans willfully neglect to mention that the paintings at the 1931 exhibition were not his best work. They were quickly made and they were portable, which showed Rivera’s mad genius level ingenuity, and ability to adapt. What’s interesting, however, is that these paintings spoke to a very specific type of fan base of Rivera’s who held him on such a pedestal, it was almost as if he could do no wrong. They appreciated the free form aspect of its process, and hailed the innovative measures used to construct it. It’s like when Kanye split his supporters down the middle by openly supporting Donald Trump. A lot of people jumped off the train. But some still showed up when he dropped “Poop di Scoop” a few weeks later, quoting its brainless bars while claiming he’s a genius.

Whether it’s 1931, 2018, or when you’re reading this in 2043, I think it’s safe to say that Diego Rivera was an artist who refused to be put in the box that others placed him in. Whether you lean left or right, you can’t limit an artist’s vision.




  1. Abad-Santos, Alex. “Why the Social Media Boycott Over Colin Kaepernick is a Win for Nike.” Vox. September 6, 2018. Accessed September 6, 2018.
  2. Biography Channel. “Emiliano Zapata Biography.” Accessed September 6, 2018.
  3. MoMA. “Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art.” Accessed September 6, 2018.
  4. Schjeldahl, Peter. “The Painting On The Wall.” The New Yorker. November, 28, 2011.
  5. Roberts, Jodi. “Diego Rivera: How to Make a Portable Mural.” February 1, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2018.
  6. Rosenberg, Karen. “Time Capsule With Pulse on Present.” New York Times, November 17, 2011.