Santa Fe Madonna Sparks Firestorm - Brief Article Art in America,  June, 2001  by Sarah S. King

An art work depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe--the popular Hispanic image of the Virgin Mary--on view at the Museum of International Folk Art, a branch of Santa Fe's Museum of New Mexico, has stirred a heated local controversy comparable to the one caused by Chris Ofili's Madonna in the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" show two years ago [see "Front Page," Nov. '99].

Included in the current Santa Fe exhibition "Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology," Our Lady, a computerized photo collage by California artist Alma Lopez, portrays the Virgin wearing a bikini made of roses; held aloft by a buxom, bare-breasted angel, she gazes out defiantly. Although rather tame compared to Ofili's painting, which incorporates elephant dung and small porno clippings, Lopez's rendering of the venerated icon has incited angry threats of censorship within Santa Fe's large Catholic community since the work went on view in February.

Michael J. Sheehan, Archbishop of Santa Fe, blasted the piece as "repulsive, insulting and even sacrilegious," and other Roman Catholic organizations are demanding the work's removal as well as the resignations of Folk Art museum director Joyce Ice and Museum of New Mexico director Thomas H. Wilson. Another vocal opponent of the work is the Rev. Michael Shea of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. He was instrumental in forcing the early removal from the 1999 SITE Santa Fe biennial of artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff's installation, which was sited in his parish cemetery [see A.i.A., Dec. '99].

Furthering tensions, nine Santa Fe legislators voiced complaints about the Lopez work in a threatening letter to the museum board of regents, suggesting cuts in future funding. Wilson recently stated that, in spite of the furor, he feels that the show's aim is well within the bounds of the museum's mission; he remains adamant about keeping the work on display.

The show's curator, Tey Marianna Nunn, who has been accused of promoting "cyber porn," stated that her intention was primarily "to showcase the manner in which the artists translate and recast their deeply rooted cultural beliefs, images and history by utilizing computers to create a new type of visual art."

Museum officials have pointed out that brochures sent to 11,000 museum supporters featuring a reproduction of Lopez's image drew only six objections.

Responding to her critics, the artist, a practicing Catholic who insists she meant no disrespect, declared, "I feel that if my work is removed it means that I have no right to express myself as an artist and a woman. It means that as Chicanas we can only be sexualized or only be virgins. It means that only men can tell us how to look at the Virgin. It means that we cannot look upon the Virgin and relate to her personally."

Many others have defended the exhibition, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the American Association of Museums, several local museum directors, as well as New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. He explained at a press conference, as reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican, that he respects the views of those offended by the art work but added, "They don't have to go see it. If we're going to not allow this to be hung, then where do we draw the lines on this stuff?"

In an effort to appease opponents, the governor-appointed Museum of New Mexico board of regents initiated a public forum on Apr. 4 to hear all sides of the argument. However, a surprisingly large turnout left hundreds of people outside the meeting hall, shouting, pushing and praying. Due to concerns for fairness and safety, organizers postponed the forum until Apr. 16, moving it to a much larger facility.

Those in attendance at the day-long meeting were invited to speak for up to three minutes, to participate in roundtable discussions aided by bilingual facilitators and to write their views on a "public comment board."Among the approximately 150 presentations were passionate statements about faith and the allegedly blasphemous elements of Lopez's image.

Those defending the institution's position spoke of freedom of expression and First Amendment rights.

In another conciliatory gesture, Wilson sent a letter to Archbishop Sheehan apologizing for any distress the image may have caused. Wilson told Art in America that he supports continued development of the Committee on Sensitive Materials, a group made up of museum staff members and officials. The committee, which so far has been primarily concerned with the repatriation and conservation of Indian artifacts, will now review the issues surrounding the new controversy. The committee will eventually present a determination to Wilson, who will consider their position before making his final recommendation to the board of regents.

As we go to press, the issue is still in the hands of the committee and any decision regarding the work (which remains on view with extra guards and warning labels) is likely to take weeks. The show runs through February 2002.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Brant Publications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group