Flash Art International, June 2001

First Serrano, Then Ofili, Now Lopez
U.S. Struggle Between the Secular and the Sacred Continues

By Clayton Campbell

The titanic struggle between the secular and the sacred has taken another disturbing turn in the United States. Alma Lopez, a feminist Latina artist from Los Angeles, is the center of a growing controversy over her mixed media imagery. A photo based work, "Our Lady", has been on display in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Museum of International Folk Art as part of "Cyber- Arte: Tradition Meets Technology." Lopez depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe partly undressed, posed in a noble stance reflecting the strong women Lopez grew up around in East LA. Though meant by the artist as homage to the Virgin and the real women she knows, "Our Lady" has been denounced by Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan as "a tart". The New Mexico Catholic Church’s very public and inflammatory stance helped provoke wide spread demonstrations by Latinos against Lopez, tinged with homophobia when it became known the artist is unashamedly Lesbian.

"Our Lady" thus becomes the next battleground over basic civil rights in the United States. As of this writing, the museum has ‘compromised’ and agreed to shorten the length of the exhibition rather than take the offending work down. Meanwhile, the protests have spread to Southern California, where fundamentalist hate groups have been phoning in threats to the museum seeking to find the artist and burn down her studio. Ms. Lopez is forced to keep a low profile in case the threats are acted upon. Southern Californian police agencies have been brought into the equation for security purposes.

Lopez is known locally for her provocative, beautiful and intelligent photo manipulated prints, reflecting the rich heritage of the East LA art scene. Her work is influenced by the populist, representational narrative visual language contemporary LA Latino artists have brilliantly invented. The controversy is helping bring her uniquely original work to national attention, but like Serrano or Ofili it’s at a personal cost which only those artists who have been lightning rods for an intense degree of hate can attest to. Perhaps not coincidentally, these three artists are persons of color?

The protests around "Our Lady" reflect the difficulty of the U.S. proposition that Church and State be separate. When artists create a secularized image of a religious icon, which has supernatural meaning to a faith-based community, all hell can break loose. What is often meant as a positive reflection of contemporary society can be interpreted as overtly hostile and derogatory by the faithful. In theory, Democratic principles affirm the right of the individual to express themselves freely. Yet religious law has its own value system, and the insistence by the Church that its iconography is entirely its own, often received miraculously and not to be meddled with, is a valid manifestation of its supernatural beliefs.

Now that the protests have taken an ominous and threatening turn, the discourse over these issues shifts to a hostile, more dangerous terrain. If there is to be any redemption in this struggle, it will come through the widespread exposure of "Our Lady" and Lopez’ work as a way of not only protecting her, but the first amendment rights of free speech every artist is entitled to in the U.S.