Museum board considers pulling icon of the Virgin Mary in a bikini
By Richard Benke
April 03, 2001 02:00:00
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The archbishop of Santa Fe says a bikini-clad
version of the Virgin Mary shown in a folk art museum depicts her "as
if she were a tart" and should be removed.Alma Lopez, the Los Angeles
artist who designed the photo collage on a computer, says she doesn't see
what's so offensive about showing the Virgin of Guadalupe as a modern woman,
"a strong woman, like us."
Jacqueline Orsini Dunnington, an independent expert on the
many faces of Mary as portrayed throughout the centuries, says the midriff-baring
two-piece outfit worn by Lopez's version of Mary "doesn't look like a
bikini to me."
"This is very modest, and it's covered with flowers.
There's certainly nothing outrageous," Dunnington said.
But something in the way Mary stands, barefoot, hands on
hips, elbows akimbo, chin up, mouth downturned, may seem to convey a defiant
"It's a challenge to old images people have in their
mind about Mary," Dunnington said by phone from Santa Fe, where the regents
of the Museum of New Mexico will consider Wednesday whether to remove the
work from the state Museum of International Folk Art.
"People ... do not like deeply rooted values or imagery
challenged," said Dunnington, who has written award-winning books on
the history of the Virgin of Guadalupe - "Viva Guadalupe: The Virgin
in New Mexico Popular Art" and "Guadalupe: Our Lady of New Mexico"
and other works on the Virgin Mary. Our Lady of Guadalupe was a vision of
Mary that appeared to a peasant in Mexico in 1531.
Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he finds Lopez's image "insulting,
it's offensive, and particularly is it offensive in a state-funded institution."
"I don't believe I'm promoting censorship," Sheehan
said. "My objection to the picture is not on the basis of morals, as
if the bishop was disapproving of a particular movie.
"My objection is on the basis of the insult to the religious
beliefs of a very large number of people that look at the Virgin Mary as being
very holy. She is depicted in a floral bikini as if she were a tart."
It might not be an issue if it were in a private gallery,
he suggested, "but such a picture has no place in a tax-supported museum."
He expressed frustration with Catholic images being singled
"No one would dream of putting Martin Luther King in
speedos and desecrating his memory by putting him in some outlandish outfit.
I wouldn't want anyone to do that," Sheehan said. "But somehow it
seems open season on Catholic symbols."
Mary has been shown "as a golden-haired Barbie doll"
and also as a figure smeared in elephant dung, he said.
"I guess, bottom line, I wish those who want to paint
controversial art would find their own symbols to trash."
Lopez, in a written statement Monday, said she grew up in
Los Angeles with images of the Virgen, as the word is spelled in Spanish,
and Mary belongs to everybody.
"The Virgen is everywhere. She's on tattoos, stickers,
posters, air freshener cans, shirts and corner store murals as well as church
walls," she said.
She feels under attack by Sheehan and Jose Villegas, a Santa
Fe resident who has sharply criticized Lopez's work.
Villegas is outraged by the bikini and by the bare-breasted
female angel included in the digital retablo.
"It violated the sacred boundaries of our culture,"
Villegas has said.
The legend of Guadalupe began in 1531 when the Virgin Mary
is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, a Christianized Aztec, three or four
times near Mexico City. The church initially resisted the reported apparitions,
calling them a mixture of pagan Aztec worship.
But after a wounded Indian recovered miraculously amid pleas
for help from Guadalupe, the Virgin became associated with miracles. In the
1600s, she was implored to halt plagues and floods, "and somehow they
stopped," Dunnington said.
In 1754, a Guadalupe feast day was established as Dec. 12.
"By then she had spread all over Mexico and had spread
to New Mexico," Dunnington said.
More than 35 New Mexico churches are dedicated to the Virgin
of Guadalupe. And there are the Guadalupe Mountains, Guadalupe County, the
Guadalupe River, the town of Guadalupita and numerous streets named Gualalupe.
"I understand the pain or the distress (of) the local
people," said Dunnington, who grew up with a painting of Guadalupe over
her bed in Europe, given to her as a child by her grandmother in the early
When Dunnington and her grandmother came to the United States
in 1938, she recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty and saying: "Oh, is
that Guadalupe?" Her grandmother replied: "No, that's the Virgin
In a way, that's what Guadalupe now represents, she said.
Her image was invoked as a revolutionary icon for Mexican independence in
1810, and that invocation was expanded later to include all ethnic and racial
groups and genders, Dunnington said.
"If she is an icon of freedom, the protesters then have
to accord the artist equal liberty," Dunnington said. "There has
to be the right to freedom of expression. That is what she has stood for."
On the Net:
Museum of International Folk Art: http://www.state.nm.us/moifa/Alma Lopez works, including "Our Lady": http://home.earthlink.net/
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