Wed Mar 28 2001 ΚΚ04:25:19

New Mexico museum defends bikini-clad Virgin Mary

By Leslie Hoffman

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., March 27 (Reuters) - A New Mexico museum on Tuesday defended a depiction of a bikini-clad Virgin Mary after the archbishop of Santa Fe added his voice to attacks from Roman Catholic activists against the artwork.

Museum officials were due to meet next week to hear public comment on "Our Lady," a digital photograph that also includes a bare-breasted angel. The angel is holding up the Virgin Mary in a stance reminiscent of traditional pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art said it had no plans to remove the picture from a yearlong special exhibition, as demanded by protesters.

"We certainly did not anticipate such a strong reaction," museum director Joyce Ice said. "And I would hope that people are willing to continue their discussions in regard to the role of art and how it plays into community values and the freedom of expression."

Archbishop Michael Sheehan weighed in on Monday with a statement criticizing the picture as "yet another trashing" of Catholicism" that "shows the insensitivity to a large segment of Santa Feans and imprudence in the administration of a state funded institution.

"In the recent past the Virgin Mary has been shown in contemporary art smeared with elephant dung and she has been depicted as a golden haired Barbie doll. Now this!" Sheehan said.


The archbishop was referring to a Brooklyn, New York, museum's 1999 depiction of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung, and a combination Barbie doll and Virgin of Guadalupe exhibited in Santa Fe.

"Our Lady" is part of an exhibition called "Cyber Arte: Where Tradition Meets Technology," exploring the use of technology in art depicting traditional images and themes.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a widely venerated symbol to Catholics who believe she appeared to a Mexican peasant in the 16th century and is a representation of the Virgin Mary.

California artist Alma Lopez, who says she is a practicing Catholic, said her piece was not meant as an affront but rather was intended to explore the image of the Virgin Mary as a strong female figure.

Lopez said she clothed Guadalupe in a rose-covered bikini to invoke traditional symbolism from the story of her appearance, in which the Virgin Mary told a peasant to pick roses near the hill where she appeared and take them to the clergy as a sign of her apparition.

Lopez said the breasts of the angel below Mary were supposed to represent nurturing.

The outcry from the Catholic community included a protest last week outside the office of the state Cultural Affairs Office by about 30 demonstrators headed by Santa Fe community activist Jose Villegas.

"For them to be doing this in the name of freedom of speech, it doesn't cut it," Villegas said. "It's defamation of religion and you can't be doing that."