Alma López

SLIDESHOW: Alma López's Art

Read more about the controversy surrounding her work

Introduction by Ana Rojo

"If [la Virgen de Guadalupe] doesn't belong to me, she does not belong to anybody."

— Alma López

When Salma Hayek’s Frida opened in Mexico last year, the critics ripped it apart until the movie resembled the surgery-ridden body of the tormented artist. It was done in English. There wasn’t enough depth to the story. Too much obsession with Frida’s love life. Ultimately, all the criticism seemed to chastise Hayek for having appropriated an icon that did not belong to her. How dare a Mexican of Lebanese ancestry portray a Mexican painter of German ancestry in other language than her native Spanish?

Something similar happened to artist Alma López last year, when she dared undress the Virgen de Guadalupe and give her a defiant look in her piece “Our Lady.” For nine months, the digital image hung at the New Mexico Museum of Folk Art, and some impassionate objectors would have Alma hung right next to it if given the chance. How dare she desecrate a sacred image? What right she had to appropriate this image that wasn’t hers?

“If she does not belong to me, she does not belong to anybody” says the artist. “She and I were both born in Mexico, we’re both mujeres, we’re both of brown skin. If she’s not a reflection of me, I don’t know who she is a reflection of.”

This reflection of her, one of the few female images she grew up with, was everywhere. In calendars, at home in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, in Los Angeles, in the trucks' mudflaps and murals. And she imagined that underneath those robes, there had to be a beautiful brown woman, strong enough to carry the burden of her children dispersed throughout a continent. So Alma set out to represent la Virgen in a way that rubbed some Catholics the wrong way.

It’s not the first time an artist is caught in the midst of a maelstrom for altering the image whose legend defies time and reason. And it wasn’t the first time the work of Lopez arose such strong emotions, either.

“I always get into trouble with somebody. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to elicit strong responses. I had worked destroyed, graffitied, last year censored,” says the artist with a tinge of resignation in her voice.

It’s not that she sets out to be controversial. It’s just that she’s always had a defiant spirit, ready to challenge the images that surround her and what they meant. Ixta, an image based in the legend of the two volcanoes in Mexico’s central valley, is a response to widespread expectations that women need be married (to a male partner) in order to be deemed worthy and accomplished.

As the story goes, Princess Iztaccihúatl promises her betrothed, Prince Popocatépetl, to wait for him while he goes to war. But upon the news that he has been killed in battle, she takes her own life. Only Popocatépetl hasn’t lost his life, but he’s grief stricken when he sees her lifeless beloved. He takes her body to a place faraway, a place where their bodies would become mountains and Popo, the smoking sentinel, would forever watch over her sleep.

“Growing up with this story, I would be horrified that this princess didn’t see her life worth anything unless she was with this prince. Then, when we would go to Mexico and visit familia, I would be asked about having a male partner. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school, I had gone to UC Santa Barbara, and yet I would still be asked , are you getting married? I was exhibiting, winning awards, and yet I would be asked, do you have children?. Everything I had achieved didn’t really matter, because what they were really asking me was if I was following this constructed path. That would make me think about Ixta, and the message that you are not worth anything regardless of what you do unless you’re hooked up to a man.”

That defiance also applies to US policies towards Mexico and the chaos they’ve created along the border that united the two countries. In her series “1848”, images of the landing-mat fence in the San Diego-Tijuana region, Alma explores the consequences of such a cold, artificial scar: working conditions, Proposition 187, the endless realities that point out to immigrants that really don’t belong in this country.

Alma began painting murals, but in the mid 90s began doing digital work, based on photographs she takes or she borrows from family and friends. “I remember I taught myself to do it, I was experimenting with Photoshop, and something really amazed me about digital work: it was very real and very surreal at the same time. It’s like a dreamed up space, more surreal even than painting because it’s actually real people.”

It will be interesting to see how her next work is received. Currently, Alma is focusing on images that deal with culture, sexuality and gender. Specifically, she wants to examine how gender is defined by physical attributes, and how women who are considered beautiful are generally seen as soft and sweet, whereas manly, butch women, would be considered “ugly.”

“It would be a wonderful world if men wanted to wear pink and dresses, and didn’t have to be these warriors, if we all could be the full spectrum of who we are. That stuff is constructed anyway, to be one way or another, (we’re) socialized for the young girls to wear pink, to play with dolls, or for the boys to play with trucks, to be attracted to a girl or a boy, to eventually marry, to be aggressive or not be aggressive. Only because that’s how it is, we don’t all necessarily have to take it.”

© 2003 El Andar Magazine