San Francisco Examiner, May 2, 2001

Bikini-clad Virgin Mary draws fire

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- It wasn't about sex or sacrilege. It was about seating.

The Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents was overwhelmed Wednesday by a crowd estimated between 700 and 800 people who turned out to debate whether museum officials should remove a bare-midriff image of the Virgin Mary from the state Museum of International Folk Art. "In my wildest dreams, I never imagined 750 to 800 people would show up," said Wood "Mike" Arnold, president of the seven-member board.

The work, "Our Lady," by Los Angeles artist Alma Lopez, has come under attack by Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Sheehan, and Catholics were well represented among the 300 or so spectators who found places. Hundreds more, kept outside by fire marshals, chanted "Cancel the Meeting!" until the regents unanimously voted to do just that before anybody had a chance to testify. The action was taken in the interest of fairness and safety, Arnold said.

The session was rescheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at the Sweeney Convention Center, Arnold said. Sweeney can hold roughly 1,200 people, but details aren't decided yet, center director Becky Ellis said. Several spectators called for the artwork to be removed in the meantime, but Arnold said he could not do that without a vote, and a vote can't come before Monday. Open-meeting laws require 72 hours' notice. The Lopez retablo includes a photographic image of a model representing the Virgin of Guadalupe, dressed in a floral two-piece outfit that some describe as a bathing suit or bikini. Lopez, who met with reporters after the meeting, said she doesn't believe "bikini" is a fair description.

"This is very conservative," she said, adding no disrespect was intended. Archbishop Michael Sheehan said Monday he objected to the image "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."

Sheehan said such imagery has no place is a tax-supported museum. But Lopez saw nothing offensive in showing the Virgin of Guadalupe as a strong, modern woman, perhaps outspoken, perhaps even revolutionary. "I'm wondering what would be so horrible about portraying ourselves as something different and revolutionary," she said. "She (Our Lady of Guadalupe) has been used as a revolutionary figure, so I don't think that's the issue."

"Even if I look really hard at 'Our Lady' and the works of many Chicana artists, I don't see what is so offensive, honestly. I see beautiful bodies that are gifts from our creator. I see nurturing breasts. I see our nurturing mothers."

The breasts, belonging to an angel depicted at the bottom of the retablo, also have raised criticism. Lopez said many churches show nude figures of angels. She emphasized her work is in a folk-art museum, not a church. She said the criticism led by Sheehan and Santa Fe activist Jose Villegas has driven up the value of her work and given her much-coveted publicity and status.

"I guess I need to give thanks to Mr. Villegas and the archbishop for bringing out my image to so many different audiences," she said. Folk art curator Tey Marianna Nunn said she was "extremely shocked" at the size and emotional intensity of the crowd. The cancellation of the meeting came just as Nunn was called to make her statement to the board. She never got a word out.

Richard Cordova of Our Lady of Heaven parish in Albuquerque promised a big turnout Monday. "I think everybody should be heard," he said, but added: "There won't be a place big enough to have a meeting, and there won't be time to hear all the complaints."

Images of Guadalupe, from sacred retablos to more popularized uses, such as the bottlecap earrings Nunn wore Wednesday, have been 470 years in the making. The legend began in 1531 when the Virgin is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, a Christian Aztec, near Mexico City.