SF Gate
San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, April 27, 2001

Some Like A Virgin, Some Don't: Alma Lopez generates controversy in New Mexico
by Nancy Warren, Special to SF Gate

Whether battling threats from outraged Catholics accusing her of desecrating a sacred icon in New Mexico or finding her mural defaced by biblical quotes in San Francisco, lesbian artist Alma Lopez faces ongoing persecution for her innovative artwork. The latest controversy centers on Lopez's digital photo collage "Our Lady," which depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe clad only in flowers and held aloft by a bare-breasted female angel.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan of New Mexico has accused the artist of portraying the religious icon as a "tart" and insisted the work be pulled from the exhibit "Cyber Arte: Where Tradition Meets Technology" at Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art. Hundreds of Catholic protestors have mounted prayer vigils against the photo they view as a desecration. The image will continue to hang in the museum, however, pending the Museum of New Mexico Sensitive Materials Committee's recommendation on whether or not to remove it, which could take several weeks.

The Mexican-born, Los Angeles-based Lopez expressed shock at the religious protestors' interpretations of her work. "Describing the image as a tart... if anything, that is really kind of sick," she said to me in a phone interview. "It's really about what's in their [the protestor's] hearts and experiences that they would see it as a sexual image necessarily. Showing legs and a belly isn't really a reason to view it sexually."

Considering that images of the Virgin are now used by commercial enterprises to peddle everything from key chains to mouse pads, it is hard to understand why this relatively tame piece has so enraged some of New Mexico's Catholics. According to Lopez, provoking the Catholic Church was not at all what she had in mind. She says she created the photo as a way to relate more personally to the religious icon whose image dominated every facet of her youth: "The image in Santa Fe is very much about a strong woman standing there with an attitude and wearing flowers. It has nothing to do with sex or sexuality."

Lopez views her work as part of a long Chicana tradition. "I'm not the first at all to have done an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe and portrayed her a little differently. It goes back to the '60s and '70s," she said, referring to artists such as San Francisco-based Esther Hernandez and Yolanda Lopez. "Their work wasn't disrespectful and my work isn't either. It's not about knocking La Virgen's image as a mother but about showing alternative identities that illustrate more the lived realities of Chicanas."

In addition to Lopez, the "Cyber Arte" exhibit -- curated by Chicana curator Tey Marianna Nunn, Ph.D. -- showcases Chicana artists Elena Baca, Teresa Archuleta-Sagel and Marion Martinez.

Shown throughout California since 1999, "Our Lady" has sparked no outrage, protests or prayer vigils in this state. However, a Lopez mural showing clearly queer imagery did result in religiously inspired hate and intolerance, right here in liberal San Francisco.

"Heaven 2," displayed outside La Galería de la Raza on 24th Street from November 2000 to January 2001 as part of their ongoing "Digital Mural" project, was defaced by graffiti and generated homophobic threats to La Galería staff and a gunshot through their window. The mural, done in a traditional Mexican "retablo" style, albeit digitally, showed a woman on her death bed imagining herself and her female lover sitting together holding hands on the moon, representing Lopez's view that heaven is about love.

Sadly, the anti-gay commentary on the mural quoted Galatians 5:16, 5:19-23, 5:25 from the Bible ("But I say walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh...Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness..). The threatening emails claimed to be from a Christian group and are currently being investigated as a homophobic hate crime by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the Hate Crimes Unit of the San Francisco Police Department, according to La Galería's Jaime Cortez.

Lopez herself sees no link between these two incidents, since the two works in question deal with different themes -- one is about same-gender love and the other is a non-sexual work portraying La Virgen as a strong woman, according to Lopez. "The only connection is the religious part of it," she said. Part of what has surprised Lopez about religious objections to "Our Lady"'s less-than-fully-clothed state is that so many religious icons in churches bare a great deal of skin. The difference, according to Lopez, is all about gender: "In churches throughout the United States, Europe, Mexico, you see images of nude angels and nude crucifixions, but they are primarily nude male bodies. So what's wrong with this? How is it that they look at women's bodies and only see sexuality versus seeing the beauty of these bodies that were given to us by our Creator?"

The perspective of the viewer -- and perhaps a little historical perspective -- would seem to be key here. Surely, everyone has seen religious depictions of Eve that bare more flesh than Lopez's "Our Lady." The floral two piece covers so much that it seems ludicrous that it has been dubbed a "bikini." Moreover, throughout history, artists from Caravaggio to Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci to Gustave Dore have been criticized for painting, sculpting and drawing religious subjects with too much of an emphasis on sensuality. Yet today, the works of these men, all gay, are held up as masterpieces of religious art.

To Lopez, the positive part of the controversy is that it's created a national discussion about who owns religious and culturally specific images. "Do Chicanas have the right to use this image they grew up with?" Lopez asks. "Does the museum have the right to exhibit this art? Does the Latina curator [Tey Marianna Nunn] have that right? Does the church have the right to stop artists from using this image?" These are eternal questions that Lopez, the latest in a long line of artistic innovators, answers with her work.