Arizona Republic

Museum board considers pulling icon of the Virgin Mary in a bikini

By Richard Benke
Associated Press

April 03, 2001 02:00:00

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The archbishop of Santa Fe says a bikini-clad version of the Virgin Mary shown in a folk art museum depicts her "as if she were a tart" and should be removed.Alma Lopez, the Los Angeles artist who designed the photo collage on a computer, says she doesn't see what's so offensive about showing the Virgin of Guadalupe as a modern woman, "a strong woman, like us."

Jacqueline Orsini Dunnington, an independent expert on the many faces of Mary as portrayed throughout the centuries, says the midriff-baring two-piece outfit worn by Lopez's version of Mary "doesn't look like a bikini to me."

"This is very modest, and it's covered with flowers. There's certainly nothing outrageous," Dunnington said.

But something in the way Mary stands, barefoot, hands on hips, elbows akimbo, chin up, mouth downturned, may seem to convey a defiant challenge.

"It's a challenge to old images people have in their mind about Mary," Dunnington said by phone from Santa Fe, where the regents of the Museum of New Mexico will consider Wednesday whether to remove the work from the state Museum of International Folk Art.

"People ... do not like deeply rooted values or imagery challenged," said Dunnington, who has written award-winning books on the history of the Virgin of Guadalupe - "Viva Guadalupe: The Virgin in New Mexico Popular Art" and "Guadalupe: Our Lady of New Mexico" and other works on the Virgin Mary. Our Lady of Guadalupe was a vision of Mary that appeared to a peasant in Mexico in 1531.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he finds Lopez's image "insulting, it's offensive, and particularly is it offensive in a state-funded institution."

"I don't believe I'm promoting censorship," Sheehan said. "My objection to the picture is not on the basis of morals, as if the bishop was disapproving of a particular movie.

"My objection is on the basis of the insult to the religious beliefs of a very large number of people that look at the Virgin Mary as being very holy. She is depicted in a floral bikini as if she were a tart."

It might not be an issue if it were in a private gallery, he suggested, "but such a picture has no place in a tax-supported museum."

He expressed frustration with Catholic images being singled out.

"No one would dream of putting Martin Luther King in speedos and desecrating his memory by putting him in some outlandish outfit. I wouldn't want anyone to do that," Sheehan said. "But somehow it seems open season on Catholic symbols."

Mary has been shown "as a golden-haired Barbie doll" and also as a figure smeared in elephant dung, he said.

"I guess, bottom line, I wish those who want to paint controversial art would find their own symbols to trash."

Lopez, in a written statement Monday, said she grew up in Los Angeles with images of the Virgen, as the word is spelled in Spanish, and Mary belongs to everybody.

"The Virgen is everywhere. She's on tattoos, stickers, posters, air freshener cans, shirts and corner store murals as well as church walls," she said.

She feels under attack by Sheehan and Jose Villegas, a Santa Fe resident who has sharply criticized Lopez's work.

Villegas is outraged by the bikini and by the bare-breasted female angel included in the digital retablo.

"It violated the sacred boundaries of our culture," Villegas has said.

The legend of Guadalupe began in 1531 when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, a Christianized Aztec, three or four times near Mexico City. The church initially resisted the reported apparitions, calling them a mixture of pagan Aztec worship.

But after a wounded Indian recovered miraculously amid pleas for help from Guadalupe, the Virgin became associated with miracles. In the 1600s, she was implored to halt plagues and floods, "and somehow they stopped," Dunnington said.

In 1754, a Guadalupe feast day was established as Dec. 12.

"By then she had spread all over Mexico and had spread to New Mexico," Dunnington said.

More than 35 New Mexico churches are dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. And there are the Guadalupe Mountains, Guadalupe County, the Guadalupe River, the town of Guadalupita and numerous streets named Gualalupe.

"I understand the pain or the distress (of) the local people," said Dunnington, who grew up with a painting of Guadalupe over her bed in Europe, given to her as a child by her grandmother in the early 1930s.

When Dunnington and her grandmother came to the United States in 1938, she recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty and saying: "Oh, is that Guadalupe?" Her grandmother replied: "No, that's the Virgin of Liberty."

In a way, that's what Guadalupe now represents, she said. Her image was invoked as a revolutionary icon for Mexican independence in 1810, and that invocation was expanded later to include all ethnic and racial groups and genders, Dunnington said.

"If she is an icon of freedom, the protesters then have to accord the artist equal liberty," Dunnington said. "There has to be the right to freedom of expression. That is what she has stood for."
On the Net:
Museum of International Folk Art: Lopez works, including "Our Lady":

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