P.O. Box 2126, Garden Grove, CA 92842-2126, USA

April 4, 2001


By Jeremy Reynalds
Special Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

Albuquerque, NM (ANS) A highly controversial bikini-clad version of the Virgin Mary on display at a state museum has been described by its artist-a practicing Catholic -- as an expression of her personal faith.

A Wednesday meeting of the regents of the Museum of New Mexico that would have decided the exhibit's fate was canceled after an overflow crowd caused concerns about fire safety. Regents will have to give 72 hours notice before rescheduling the meeting.

The issue has now gotten so heated that it has escalated into a verbal boxing match, with religious leaders taking on the so-called defenders of free speech. Fight contestants include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of Museums and museum staff and volunteers.

The Catholic League, a New York based civil rights organization, has also jumped in the ring. In a statement, League President William Donohue commented that the museum's state funding and operation make it unique.

Donohue said, "(The museum) has a special obligation, therefore, not to use money from taxpayers for the purpose of abusing their racial, ethnic, religious or cultural affiliations ... . Moreover, the museum has its own guidelines and that is why the Catholic League has seized upon them in writing a letter to the board of regents. Our advice? Observe separation of art and state."

Devout Catholic parishioners are also up in arms, calling the image blasphemous,. And Archdiocese of Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan is pretty upset too. In a statement released by his office, Sheehan called the picture "insulting even sacrilegious."

Sheehan said he finds "it offensive that the Catholic symbol of Guadalupe has been so disrespectfully treated."

Referring to some recent controversies over other sacrilegious treatments of the Virgin Mary, Sheehan wrote that "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! ... I wish those who want to paint controversial art would find their own symbols to trash and leave the Catholic ones alone."

Sheehan correctly pointed out that such a "repulsive" picture shows "imprudence in the administration of a State funded institution. Such a picture has no place in a tax supported public museum ... I doubt that the Jewish community would be patient with such a mistreatment of symbols sacred to their faith."

No, the Jews wouldn't be very patient and neither would Native Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans and so the list goes on. But here's the problem.

The issue usually never comes up, because our culture doesn't as a rule treat such groups with the disdain that is routinely showered on conservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

For example. Look how rudely a museum volunteer put protesters down and insulted them when he told media that "The people involved ... are very traditional, and I can appreciate that. I think they also need to understand that everyone does not have the same approach." How condescending and obnoxious!

But no doubt, all those poor ignorant and traditional protesters should have had their feelings assuaged when they learned from a museum official through local media that there was no "malice" in the creation of the display. (Wow. What a comfort. No malice but most definitely a lot of stupidity!) In a feeble attempt to rationalize the picture, Tey Marianna Nunn, curator of contemporary and Hispano and Latino art at the now controversial Museum of International Folk Art, told local media that the picture "comes out of a tradition of Guadalupe always changing to represent contemporary times."

Really? When you see how the work originated, it sounds like the product of someone with serious psychological problems. The artist, Californian Alma Lopez, said the picture was inspired by a passage she once read in a book by Sandra Cisneros, who wondered (and then unfortunately chose to put her "wonderings" down in print) what saints wore under their robes.

Human beings routinely wonder all sorts of things, most of which fortunately never make their way out of the murky recesses of the mind onto public display. That's because they're just not appropriate. Such ruminations if made public could quite aptly be called "rude, crude and ill-bred," and amount to issues not usually discussed in polite company.

So you'd think that museum officials--especially ones like Nunn; who earned a Ph.D. (probably in American Studies!) from the University of New Mexico would realize the problem with Lopez' work and would respond appropriately. But does she? Not a chance! Nunn told reporters that Lopez "has a right to do this, and it is part of the museum's mission to document change."

It's true that Lopez does have a "right," but does that "right" extend to having her work exhibited in a state funded museum at taxpayers' expense? And if the museum feels the need to document "change," it needs to be "change" within the boundaries of good taste in this case as defined by members of the conservative Catholic religious community. If the museum is unable to do that, then such repulsive apologies for "art" needing public display need to be hung somewhere else (perhaps a rarely used, out-of-the-way bathroom?) and funded with private dollars.
Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. The shelter web site is <>. He was honored with the prestigious Jefferson Award in 1994. Reynalds emigrated from England to the United States in 1978 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1998. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico. He is married with five children. He may be reached by e-mail at <>.

Note: A JPEG black and white picture of Jeremy Reynalds can be obtained from Dan Wooding at e-mail
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