Icons of love and devotion: Alma Lopez's art.(Critical essay)
Publication: Feminist Studies
Publication Date: 22-MAR-08
Author: Latorre, Guisela
COPYRIGHT 2008 Feminist Studies, Inc.
KNOWN FOR HER STUNNING digital montages as well as for her feminist reconceptualization of traditional Mexican iconography, Chicana artist Alma Lopez has emerged as one of the leading voices in the Chicana/o art scene who addresses the perilous intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality with her visual work. Born in Mexico but raised in Los Angeles, Lopez came of age as an artist in the late 1990s, although she witnessed the Chicana/o arts renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s as a child and adolescent. Like prior Chicana feminist artists, Lopez has challenged the exclusion and/or erasure of female agency within conventional Mexican and Chicano nationalist imagery. Although Chicano nationalist discourses understood empowerment primarily in male terms, Lopez's work places women at the center of discourses on emancipation and decolonization. Her imagery also expounds what gender scholars would call a Chicana queer aesthetic, as much of her work explores the contours of lesbian desire and sexuality at a time when issues of race and sexuality were often articulated independently and even in opposition to one another.
Although Lopez is a talented and skilled painter, printmaker, photographer, and video artist as well as a committed community activist, she is best known for the moniker, "the digital diva." (1) The artist often recounts that when she was first introduced to the computer as an artistic medium, she immediately "clicked" with this new tool in part because of its ability to transform pre-existing imagery. (2) Digital art refers to work produced with a computer as an artistic tool. Images are generally created with software like Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, among others. Artists then produce high-resolution printouts of the images for the purposes of exhibitions and sales. One of the most salient characteristics of digital media is its ability to manipulate and transform pre-existing imagery in seamless and organic ways, thus allowing artists to bring together images produced with different media and within different contexts. Lopez's digital work differs from her nondigital oeuvre in that it features layers of different images that are digitally woven together. These usually include hand-drawn or painted motifs, photography, and pre-existing archival/historical material. Thus digital media allows Lopez to piece together images from previously fragmented histories in her work.
Lopez also belongs to a generation of Chicana artists who have begun using computer technology as a viable and potentially empowering medium for creative expression. (3) By using this medium, they are infringing on a territory that has traditionally excluded their presence as women of color, namely the realm of science and technology. Lopez's use of digital imagery also counters the paradigm of the digital divide, which maintains that ethnic minorities have limited access to digital technologies, an idea that many media and race scholars have denounced as a self-fulfilling prophecy. (4) This relatively new artistic tool has also allowed Lopez to engage in various forms of cyber activism through the construction and maintenance of her own artist's website (www.almalopez.net). Not only does this websites contain low-resolution scans of her artwork as well as her biography, it is also an open forum for the public discussion of issues that affect Chicana/o/Latina/o and queer communities of color. The site contains a blog as well as public postings of e-mail messages that the artist has received throughout her career.
Lopez's work centers around a feminist and queer re-thinking of traditional Mexican icons, many of which are imbued with a deeply ingrained patriarchal discourse. The Virgin of Guadalupe--a popular symbol of Mexican/Chicana/o spirituality and cultural resistance from the seventeenth century to the present--has become the object of feminist critique among Chicana artists since the 1970s. In Mexican culture, the Virgin of Guadalupe represents the ideal woman, one who is motherly yet asexual and one who is culturally relevant yet inescapably passive and submissive. More than two decades after the acclaimed pastel drawings Guadalupe Series (1978) by Yolanda Lopez (no relation to Alma) and Ester Hernandez's radically feminist lithograph La Virgen de Guadalupe Defendiendo los Derechos de los Xicanos (1975), Alma Lopez tapped into the cultural and political popularity of the Guadalupe when she produced her controversial digital print Our Lady (1999) (fig. 1). In February 2001 Lopez showed this work in the Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as part of their "Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology" exhibition. The image sparked heated objections from a mob of protesters led by community activist Jose Villegas and New Mexico Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, who called for its removal from the museum (5). In spite of the public hostility around Lopez's image (she even received death threats), the museum curators refused to remove the image, and the exhibition remained open for its originally scheduled run. The artist would later post on her website many of the thousands of e-mails she received, both in support of and in opposition to her work. This virtual discussion space became a platform for broader discussions around religion/spirituality, cultural identity, sexuality, freedom of expression, intolerance, and so forth.
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Why did Our Lady cause such an uproar? The image is composed of a digital montage depicting performance artist Raquel Salinas cast in the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who here defiantly returns her gaze to the viewer, a far cry from the downturned eyes of the Guadalupe in traditional iconography. Lopez's Lady wears a rose bikini, a reference to the association of the Virgin Mary with this particular flower, and a blue mantle revealing the relief surface of the stone sculpture of Coyolxauh-qui, the Aztec moon goddess. This modern-day Guadalupe is being held up not by an angel but rather by the figure of a bare-chested Raquel Gutierrez, cultural activist and personal friend of the artist. Gutierrez sports a pair of Monarch butterfly wings, an iconographic motif that is particularly significant to Lopez, as she explains:
The Monarch butterfly is most known for its natural yearly migration
from Mexico to the northern U.S. However, the most remarkable aspect
of this migration is that on its flight back to Mexico or the
northern U.S. it is no longer the original butterfly, but it is the
child returning on genetic memory. Like the Monarch butterfly,
indigenous people of this continent have migrated between both
Similar to many earlier Chicana artists and writers, Lopez sought to subvert the passivity and asexuality of the Virgin of Guadalupe while still retaining the spiritual, cultural, and political power that the figure possesses for Mexican and Chicana/o populations. The attempts to censor Our Lady in Santa Fe then reflected a desire on the part of institutions of power to curb alternative forms of the spiritual formulated by women of color, on the one hand, and to maintain control over religious imagery, on the other. The entire experience led Lopez to ask, "Why do they [the Santa Fe Archdiocese and the protesters] feel more entitled to this cultural icon than the Chicana/Latina/Hispana women in the exhibition (7)?"
Lopez's re-thinking of the Virgin of Guadalupe also led her to assess the icon's cultural importance to the Chicana/o queer community. Such was the case with her Lupe and Sirena Series, which she began in 1999 when she was asked to design a flyer for an event for lesbian/bisexual women of color. In the series, she visualized the romantic union of two of the most prominent female figures in Mexican culture, namely the Guadalupe and the sirena (mermaid) from the Mexican loteria (bingo) game. The pairing was a particularly provocative one for Lopez, who saw these two figures as representing two very distinctive discursive spheres, namely the sacred and the profane. Not only was the artist pointing out the capriciousness and arbitrariness of this distinction, but she was also showing that the spiritual need not be relegated to restrictive spaces. In Encuentro (1999) (fig. 2), Sirena ascends into the heavens, away from the worldly sphere of the loteria, to meet the Virgin. As in the image of Our Lady, here she is hoisted up by a Monarch butterfly, and her characteristic body halo is now a subtle afterglow. In a subsequent digital print entitled Lupe and Sirena in Love (1999) (fig .3), also part of the Lupe and Sirena Series, the encounter between these two figures becomes sexual as the Virgin intimately touches Sirena's body in a passionate embrace. A group of angels frame the scene, giving the entire image a kitschy and humorous touch reminiscent of Tomas Ybarra-Frausto's identification of rasquache aesthetics in Chicana/o art. (8) The seemingly disjunctive juxtaposition between the religious iconography and contemporary popular imagery is coupled with yet another disjunction, namely that between sexual desire and divine love that Lopez explores here. Although traditional Christian imagery does address the connection between human desire and divine love, what may seem particularly transgressive about Lopez's image is the suggestion that the divine could be present within a nonheterosexual erotic encounter between two female figures associated with the culture of the Other.
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With Encuentro and Lupe and Sirena in Love, Lopez establishes the story behind the birth of a symbol, namely the Lupe and Sirena pairing, which functions as a unified icon of devotion that will recur in her later work. The Lupe/Sirena icon eventually becomes consecrated in Lupe and Sirena in Aztlan (2000) (fig. 4). The divine character of their sexual/romantic union is now forever frozen in chronological and cosmic time, sealed within the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Christ, a motif dating back to medieval France that symbolizes Christ's martyrdom as well as his love for all humanity. A pair of angels help these figures descend from the heavens to look and watch over the Los Angeles skyline that Lopez here equates with Aztlan itself, the mythic homeland of the Aztecs often identified by Chicana/o intellectuals as the U.S. Southwest. Lupe and Sirena in Aztlan marks an important evolution in the artist's iconographic development, for it is with this image that she makes the important transition from personal to collective identity. While Encuentro and Lupe and Sirena in Love suggest that the artist was creating an icon of love and devotion that fit her own subjectivity as a lesbian woman of color, here Lopez is offering the Lupe/Sirena icon to the larger community represented by Los Angeles/Aztlan. She thus implies that this icon is an appropriate image of devotion for individuals outside the Chicana/o queer community.
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Another important component of Lopez's visual repertoire rests on the creation of "saints" not sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Charlene Villasenor Black has observed that images of saints are generally thought to be safe and apolitical, yet they are radically transformed by Chicana artists. (9) In Juan Soldado (1997) and Santa Nina de Mochis (1999) (figs. 5 and 6), both part of her 1848 Series, Lopez introduces new icons of devotion for a community marked by a painful history of colonization and displacement. In Juan Soldado, Lopez alludes to the regional cult of Juan Castillo Morales in Tijuana. Castillo Morales was a member of the Mexican army stationed in Tijuana during the 1930s. He was accused and convicted for the murder and rape of an 8-year-old girl although he fervently professed his innocence. Apparently Castillo Morales had been framed and was the scapegoat for the real culprit, one of his superior officers in the army. After Castillo Morales was executed for the crime on February 17, 1934, miracles began to occur to individuals who prayed to him. Castillo Morales-or Juan Soldado, as he later became known-soon turned into the unofficial patron saint of border crossers. Lopez took an interest in his figure and cult because, as she explained, he "is not recognized by the Church and is therefore an illegal saint of undocumented immigrants."
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Through the different layers of digital imagery, Lopez, in Juan Soldado, constructs this saint and invents his attributes, given that there is no iconographic tradition associated with his cult other than the saint's representation on novenas and prayer cards that circulate in botanicas (retail stores that sell folk medicine, religious paraphernalia, and alternative medicine, among other things) and other spaces frequented by immigrant communities in the U.S. Southwest. In Lopez's image, Juan Soldado stands in the middle of the composition looking directly at the viewer, his figure completely surrounded by a body halo. Upon closer inspection, this body halo is actually composed of the elongated image of Coyolxauhqui herself. The connection between these two figures speaks of the transnational connections the artist makes through the layering technique facilitated by design software like Adobe Photoshop. While Coyolxauhqui and Juan Soldado are icons belonging to very different periods in history, they both share a legacy of humiliation and scapegoating directed at the cultural or gendered Other. Juan Soldado is placed within quite a heterogeneous background: we see vestiges of the old Disturnell Map utilized by the United States to redraw the U.S./Mexico border during the Mexican-American war. Superimposed on the California side of this map we find the figure of an undocumented immigrant running away from a border patrol car. Near the Tijuana/San Diego region, Lopez included an image of the makeshift shrine built around the tomb of Juan Soldado in Tijuana's Panteon 2. As he is depicted here, Juan Soldado emerges as an icon of devotion from a complex history that transcends the chronology of Juan Soldado's own lifespan.
Although with her portrayal of Juan Soldado, Lopez celebrated an existing cult, in Santa Nina de Mochis the artist fashioned a completely new saint. She was inspired to create this image after a visit to her grandmother's grave in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. (10) During her visit she encountered a little girl she had never met before but who she felt possessed a powerful inner spirit. The individuals who often appear in her work are either people from the artist's life or people she encounters by chance. By transforming this little girl into the Santa Nina de Mochis, Lopez implies that "saintly" attributes can be found in anyone, not just those figures endorsed through the canonization process carried out by Vatican authorities. The Santa Nina is surrounded here by recurring motifs in Lopez's work: the Los Angeles skyline, the immigrant being chased by the border patrol, the Monarch butterfly wings, and, of course, the Guadalupean iconography. Instead of inhabiting a heavenly realm, the Santa Nina here lives on the borderlands indicated by her proximity to the fence between the United States and Mexico. Her presence in this region mirrors the discourses formulated by Chicana writers like Gloria Anzaldua and Emma Perez regarding borderlands. Although institutions of power effectively control physical movement across different interstices and regions, border spaces are, nevertheless, fertile grounds for cross-cultural and hybrid sensibilities. The Santa Nina de Mochis is then the holy progeny of the contested nature that characterizes the borderlands.
Lopez's interest in Mexican icons also compelled the artist to intervene into traditional patriarchal Mexican mythology. Lopez's Ixta (1999) (cover art), one of her most visually stunning compositions, cites the famous Legend of the Volcanoes known widely in Mexican and Chicana/o culture. In this image, the artist cast Cristina Serna and Mirna Tapia, two young Chicana activists who were romantically involved at the time of the photograph, (11) in the roles of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, the doomed lovers from the Legend of the Volcanoes. According to this legend, Popocatepetl was a fierce warrior for the Aztec empire who fell hopelessly in love with Ixtaccihuatl, the daughter of a powerful ruler. Their love was forbidden due to the differences in social class. The cacique (tribal leader) sent Popocatepetl off to war to distance him from his daughter, later telling her that her lover had been killed in battle. The princess was so devastated with the news that she died of grief. Upon finding out about her death, Popocatepetl, overcome by sorrow, took her to the mountains and forever mourned over her lifeless and limp body. When the gods witnessed this scene of tragic love, they transformed the bodies of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl into a volcano and mountain, respectively. Mexican artists and illustrators often depicted the figure of Ixtaccihuatl as a fair-skinned woman whose body lay lifeless before her darker warrior lover. The Legend of the Volcanoes, like many nationalist myths, metaphorically fashioned the nation after a romanticized heterosexual love affair, thus ascribing a specific, and exclusionary, identity to the nation. Like other Chicana artists and writers, Lopez actively sought to queer these myths in order to challenge patriarchal and heteronormative definitions of nation.
In Lopez's reconceptualization of the Legend of the Volcanoes, Tapia, who plays the dead Ixta, lies on the U.S.-Mexico border fence while her female lover mourns over her reclining figure. This figural group is also strikingly reminiscent of Italian Renaissance pieta or lamentation scenes with the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ. The Los Angeles skyline behind this figural group, however, establishes this image as a late twentieth-century construct. The mountainous backdrop reveals yet another image of Popo and Ixta, which Lopez here borrowed from Mexican calendar artist and illustrator Miguel Helguera. Most working-class Mexican and Chicana/o families became familiar with Indigenist myths through Helguera's widely reproduced, highly romanticized, and illusionistic illustrations, which were cheaply reproduced in calendars and almanacs. Lopez, who grew up with this imagery in her own household, (12) exhibited Ixta next to Miguel Helguera's work in the exhibition Patria Portatil: 100 Years of Mexican Chromo Art Calendars in 1999 at the Latino Museum of History, Art, and Culture in Los Angeles.
With her digital aesthetics Lopez deeply contests the idea that all notions associated with the physicality of the body, including sexuality, are antagonistic to a spiritual life. In Tattoo (1999) (fig. 7), Lopez depicts the lesbian body as a critical site of empowerment as well as spiritual awakening. According to Amalia Mesa-Bains, the ongoing practice of curanderismo (a kind of folk healing that uses a mind-body-spirit healing approach) throughout the Americas, including among Mexican and Chicana/o communities in the United States, assumes that problems concerning the spiritual can be solved through the healing of the body, thus implying an integration of the two in contrast to the European distinction between them. (13) With this image, Lopez therefore seeks to bring back the symbiotic and dialectic association between the body and the spirit that was prevalent prior to the conquest of the Americas. Tattoo, an image about both healing and affirmation, depicts a bare-backed Chicana who stands proudly before the Los Angeles skyline with an expression of determination in her face. With the U.S.-Mexico border directly below her, she seems resolved to take a stand before the multilayered discrimination normally directed at Chicana lesbians. Her strength, symbolized by her monumentality, is also drawn from the spiritual power of the Lupe/Sirena icon that is being tattooed on her back. Through her body, this Chicana is undergoing a process of spiritual transformation and healing that is both personal and political. Tattoo displays a common strategy utilized by Chicana lesbian artists that, according to Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, consists of putting "other bodies into circulation that contest the ideal body of Chicano identity in cultural representation, problematizing the singular 'community' and exploring multilayered identities." (14) Tattoo also forms part of an important genealogy of Chicana/o gendered representations. Tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe are commonly seen on the backs of Chicano males and are often regarded as a symbol of Mexican masculinity. Chicana artist Ester Hernandez caused quite a stir when in 1991 she put her silkscreen image entitled La Ofrenda on the cover of the anthology Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, edited by Carla Trujillo. Like Lopez's Tattoo, Hernandez's work also depicted a barebacked Chicana with a Guadalupe tattoo on her back that not only transgressed the gendered expectations for Chicanas but also likened lesbian desire to divine love.
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Alma Lopez's imagery is deeply oppositional while at the same time significantly inclusive of the various subject positions that compose the Chicana/o/Latina/o experience in the United States. The complex layering of her digital montages speaks of the equally complex layering of identities and subjectivities defined by gender, class, race, and sexuality. Although her work is informed by the spirit of collective consciousness and community engagement celebrated in the Chicana/o arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, she is representative of a turn-of-the millennium generation of artists who understand the critical role that gender and sexuality play in the oppression of people of color. Her personal identity as a Chicana lesbian represents, more than a sexual orientation, a political position that challenges essentialist and static notions of cultural and national identity. Lopez's cultural production embodies a Chicana feminist consciousness of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries that is characterized by the utilization of new strategies for decolonization. These strategies counter the technologies of oppression ushered in by globalization and the move of transnational capital across national boundaries, using these technologies against this very system of domination. Such strategies reflect what digital media scholar Anna Everett calls cyberwomanist activism, as women of color use digital technology as tools for grassroots organizing and empowerment. (15) The dynamic and fluid element in Lopez's Chicana feminist consciousness is not unlike the flickering and dynamic energy that allows digital systems to function. This energy depends on the simultaneous establishment of networks and links that work dependently on one another and thus feed off each other's input.
(1.) "Digital Diva: Alma Lopez is a Los Angeles-Based Visual and Public Artist," http://almaopez.blogspot.com.
(2.) Alma Lopez, Artist's Lecture (Videorecording) (Santa Barbara: University of California, Santa Barbara, Special Collections, 2003).
(3.) Judy Baca and Patricia Rodriguez are two other Chicana artists who, in the past decade, have adopted digital technology as an artistic medium. Baca founded in 1996 the Cesar Chavez Digital Mural Lab in the Social and Public Art Resources Center (SPARC) where, often with the help of UCLA students, she has created dozens of digital murals. Rodriguez, for her part, participated in a 1997 digital mural project entitled Fruta del Diablo with students from California State University, Monterey.
(4.) Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh N.Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines, eds., Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 2.
(5.) For more on the controversy over Alma Lopez's Our Lady, see Alma Lopez, "Silencing Our Lady: La respuesta de Alma," Aztlan: A Journal of Chocano Studies 25 (Spring 2000): 249-67.
(6.) Cited in Luz Calvo, "Impassioned Icons: Alma Lopez and Queer Chicana Visual Desire" (Web essay) www.csupomona.edu/~plin/ews410/virgin_guadalupe.html.
(7.) Lopez, "Silencing Our Lady," 251.
(8.) Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility," in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985, ed. Richard Griswold del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano (Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, 1990), 155-62.
(9.) Charlene Villasenor Black, "Sacred Cults, Subversive Icons: Chicanas and the Pictorial Language of Catholicism," in Speaking Chicana: Voice, Power, and Identity, ed. D. Leticia Galindo and Maria Dolores Gonzales (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999), 160.
(10.) Lopez, Artist's Lecture.
(11.) Cristina Serna, at the time of this writing, was a doctoral student in the department of Chicana and Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During a presentation in a seminar I taught during the winter of 2006, Serna provided me and the students in the class with information regarding the circumstances behind her decision to pose for Ixta with her then-partner Mirna Tapia. Serna is herself carrying out research on Chicana art and feminist activism.
(12.) Alma Lopez has said the following about Popo and Ixta imagery: "Growing up in El Sereno, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, I would see this image of Popo & Ixta on murals, low-rider cars, and in Low Rider magazine. Every December, a local bakery or restaurant would give our family at least one calendar with this mythical image of the Mexican Romeo and Juliet." See Alma Lopez, "Mermaids, Butterflies, and Princesses," Aztlan 25 (Spring 2000): 190-91.
(13.) Amalia Mesa-Bains, "Chicano Bodily Aesthetics," in Body/Culture: Chicano Figuration, ed. Richard J. Kubiak and Elizabeth Partch (Rohnert Park, Calif: Sonoma State University, 1990), 7.
(14.) Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, "Laying It Bare: The Queer/Colored Body in Photography by Laura Aguilar," in Living Chicana Theory, ed. Carla Trujillo (Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1998), 277.
(15.) See Anna Everett, "On Cyberfeminism and Cyberwomanism: High Tech Mediations of Feminism's Discontents," Signs 30, no. 1 (2004): 1278-85.