Albuquerque Tribune

'Our Lady' art unrobes icon and unleashes parish protest
By J.M. Barol
Tribune reporter

In Santa Fe this week, an international image of forgiveness and understanding has triggered a barrage of high-profile blame.

The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe has resisted demands to remove "Our Lady" by California artist Alma López. One Catholic Church parishioner has called the image "blasphemous" and has vowed to have it taken off public display in the museum's current exhibit, "Cyber Arté."
"I see the devil. I don't see our Blessed Mother. I'm 42 years old, and I never have and never will see her in a bikini." José Villegas, Santa Fe community activist

     Members of the Catholic community are demanding the capital city's Museum of International Folk Art remove a piece of artwork that they feel is offensive to their religious beliefs.
     "They can call it censorship, First Amendment rights, whatever they want, but in New Mexico our people won't tolerate this blasphemy," said JosÇ Villegas, a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and a Santa Fe community activist who last week launched a protest against the museum and the work.
     "Our Lady," which is included in the museum's exhibition "Cyber ArtÇ," is a digital photograph by Los Angeles artist Alma López representing the Virgin of Guadalupe. While familiar Guadalupe concepts exist -- the rays of light, the cloak, the roses, the crescent moon, the angel -- here, her robe is open, revealing a woman scantily clothed in rose-laden undergarments. The angel below is represented by a topless woman, arms outstretched and butterfly wings strategically extending from her shoulders and breasts.
     "Our Lady" was inspired by "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess," an essay by Hispanic author Sandra Cisneros, said López, who was born in Mexico and grew up in a Catholic family in northeastern Los Angeles. In the essay, Cisneros reflects upon the icon she grew up revering.
     "Sandra is thinking about how she (the Virgin) is so covered up with her robe," López said. "The only thing you see is her face and her hands. There's so much cloth that it bunches up at her feet so you can't see them. She says she always wondered what she looked like under all those clothes."
     "My idea was portraying the virgen as a really strong woman," said López, 33. "I was reflecting on growing up and how my mother and all the mothers in the community were really strong women in order to be nurturing to their families. I was thinking about how the mother of Jesus, just to endure raising her child and watching him go through all his struggles, had to be a strong woman, not submissive."
     As far as the topless woman below the Virgin, López says she repeated the theme of a nurturing woman.
     Villegas protests the near nudity of both the Virgin and the angel, which, he said, subverts the traditional meaning and sanctity of the figure.
     "I see the devil," said Villegas, who has protested against what he calls "sacrilegious art" before. "I don't see our Blessed Mother. I'm 42 years old, and I never have and never will see her in a bikini."
     On Monday, Villegas requested a meeting with the state Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Museum of New Mexico, to discuss the removal of "Our Lady."
     The private meeting will take place at 9 a.m. Friday on the fourth floor of the Office of Cultural Affairs, behind the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe.
     Along with Villegas, museum officials, state administrators and members of Albuquerque and Santa Fe Catholic communities will attend the meeting. Villegas says he also expects protesters to surface outside the closed-door meeting.
     Museum officials say they have no intention of pulling López's piece.
     "I think that as an educational institute the museum's role is to foster discussion," said Joyce Ice, director of the folk art museum.
     Villegas is not the only person who opposes the image. This week, Anthony Trujillo, the deacon of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, made an impassioned statement against the artwork.
     "What bothered me about it," he said, "is that it was termed devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe."
     Villegas is determined to have the piece removed.
     "Yes, it is a holy war on our state institution," Villegas said. "They started the fire, and we're going to put it out. No one has a right to attack our religion."
     For her part, López is a bit stunned at the protest.
     "This is a really big reaction," she said. "I think I'm a little surprised; it's a little upsetting. But I just figure some people are into different things and my work isn't going to be liked by everybody."