Freedom of Expression: Virgin Mary in Two-Piece Swimsuit

March 2001

By George Loper

"Compared with a photograph of a nude woman as Jesus at the Last Supper or a painting of the Virgin Mary with a dollop of elephant dung on her breast, a computerized photo collage of Our Lady of Guadalupe wearing a two-piece swimsuit of bright roses seems rather innocuous.

Yet that collage of the Roman Catholic icon, which is part of an exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art here, has caused such an uproar that museum officials say they have been threatened with physical harm and state lawmakers have suggested that the museum should lose some of its state support.

'We never expected anything like this,' said Thomas H. Wilson, director of New Mexico's four state museums, who grew concerned enough to consult with officials of the Brooklyn Museum of Art to find out how they handled similar situations, including the current showing of the nude woman as Jesus and the exhibition of the Virgin Mary painting.

Hanging here since February, the collage 'Our Lady,' by Alma Lopez, a California artist, prompted a boisterous protest outside the museum; a harsh review by the archbishop of Santa Fe, Michael J. Sheehan; a letter expressing deep concern from the Santa Fe delegation to the State Legislature; and the hurried scheduling of an open hearing on Wednesday before the museum's board. After the hearing, Mr. Wilson said, the seven board members will have the option to vote to remove the work.

Mr. Wilson said he had no idea how the members might vote.

'State lawmakers have been calling them, too,' he said. 'I would not want to be the first museum director in the United States facing such pressure to remove a work of art. It's contrary to the principles of free speech and artistic freedom.'

Representative Ben Lujan, a Democrat who is Speaker of the House and who signed the letter of concern, said that he favored removing the collage but that cutting the museum's financial support 'is not the directive we are trying to express.'

The work by Ms. Lopez, which also features a bare-breasted angel holding the Virgin Mary aloft, is part of an exhibit featuring Hispanic artists who use computers to produce works. Some works are actual computer parts. Ms. Lopez's 'Our Lady,' and her other eight pieces on display, are printouts from images put together on a computer program.

Tey Marianna Nunn, the curator of the exhibit, said the works on display reflected an emerging style that many Hispanic artists had embraced to interpret their cultural history and beliefs. Our Lady of Guadalupe, an image of the Virgin Mary who many Catholics believe appeared before a Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531, has been a favorite subject for 'reimaging,' Ms. Nunn said. She noted that there had been recent depictions of Mary as a Barbie doll, a karate kicker and a tattooed lesbian.

Ms. Lopez, a Catholic who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., has defended her interpretation of the Virgin by saying she is showing Mary as a strong woman 'and not as the young, passive' more traditional image with head bowed and hands clasped that was displayed in her home when she was growing up.

In a recent letter to a supporter that museum officials are providing reporters, Ms. Lopez wrote, 'I can only imagine that the mother of Jesus would be an incredibly strong woman to raise and endure the pain of her son's struggles.'

She defended the angel by saying the bare breasts represented beauty and nurturing.

Nonetheless, the collage now hangs in a room where museum officials this week felt the need to post a sign that reads, 'Some objects in this exhibition may be disturbing to certain viewers.'
And to many, 'Our Lady' has been. Museum officials have collected scores of letters, notes, e-mail messages and comments by telephone from people who have seen the exhibit or have only heard about it. They are running about 60 percent in support of the museum's showing Ms. Lopez's work, with the rest opposed, Mr. Thomas said.

Few of those opposed expressed stronger views than Archbishop Sheehan, who said in an interview that he had grown tired of seeing the Virgin Mary depicted in ways that he and other Catholics found offensive.

'This is not censorship,' he said of his insistence that the work be removed. 'My concern here is that this is an insulting image of a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary. It's deeply insulting and disrespectful to the sentiments of many people. It's even more insulting for her to say, I'm Catholic, so it's O.K.'

For all the fuss, Mr. Wilson said museum attendance had increased since the exhibition opened, with many visitors simply wanting to see what is stirring the controversy.

A steady stream of people passed the collage today, including Mary Ellen Taggart of Essex Falls, N.J., A Catholic. She concluded that it was easier to draw a negative response by only seeing 'Our Lady,' rather than all nine of Ms. Lopez's works.

'Am I offended?' she asked standing in front of the work. 'Not really. But it's sure caused some hornet's nest, hasn't it?' " (Michael Janofsky, The New York Times, March 31, 2001).

The Museum of International Folk Art has decided to let the "computerized photo collage of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a rose-covered bikini remain on display through the fall" (Mindy Sink, The New York Times, May 23, 2001).

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