August 4, 2001
Rocky Mountain News
Voelz Chandler: Religion,
art clash in Santa Fe
SANTA FE, N.M. -- Not to sound Utopian, but
the Museum of International Folk Art has always struck me as a place that
actually operates on the often-expressed idea that art can link where language
After all, a stroll through the wing housing
a mere drop of the 100,000-piece Girard Collection turns any human simultaneously
into child and giant. All merely by navigating display cases filled with intricate
worlds of figures, boats, tiny cities, creches, theaters and dolls.
With the construction of new facilities on the
plaza linking the folk art museum with the nearby Museum of Indian Arts and
Culture, plus a smart new show of woodblock prints, 2001 should be an exciting
time for this benign place.
But the year has proved more exciting than officials
expected. I was shocked when an acquaintance in Santa Fe called several months
ago to talk about a controversy that had landed right on the museum's front
door. Actually, right in its Hispanic Heritage Wing, where "Cyber Arte:
Tradition Meets Technology" has stirred protests over an artist's depiction
of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Archbishop of New Mexico called for removal
of Alma Lopez's Our Lady, claiming she had turned the virgin into "a
tart." There have been community meetings and rallies, and the Internet
is abuzz with comment on one work in a room full of many. All the works are
made by women (Lopez, as well as New Mexico residents Teresa Archuleta-Sagal,
Elena Baca and Marion C. Martinez), in a show curated by a woman. All rely
on the computer, digital images, even chip boards to explore culture and religion.
But Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, of the Archdiocese
of Santa Fe, wrote in a letter to The magazine, " . . . I wish that those
who want to paint controversial art would find their own symbols to trash
and leave the Catholic ones alone."
Los Angeles-based Lopez, meanwhile, notes in
a widely circulated statement that her work is in a museum. "It is not
an object of devotion in a church."
Why does this sound so familiar, this tension
inherent in the First Amendment? Think Chris Ofili's dung-daubed The Holy
Virgin Mary and Renee Fox's nude-woman-as-Christ-figure in Yo Mama's Last
Supper. Now Brooklyn comes to the desert, or something like that.
Other Lopez works in "Cyber Arte"
key in on politics, but the flap centers on her take on the saint whose apparition
helped convert millions of indigenous people to Catholicism.
It's Guadalupe in a rose-covered two-piece swimsuit,
not a robe that would fall open to release a bounty of flowers, held aloft
by a bare-breasted, not demure, angel. (As if the little nude male cherubs,
or putti, aren't a staple of art.)
Two residents last month appealed to Museum of New Mexico director Thomas H. Wilson to take the image down. Wilson said no. Another appeal, to the state's Office of Cultural
Affairs, will go to the museum system's board
of regents at its September meeting. Meanwhile "Cyber Arte," which
closes in October, is pulling in curious crowds and has attracted attention
from the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
The TFP's America Needs Fatima campaign rallied here in June.
The closing was moved up four months, partly
as a conciliatory gesture, Folk Art museum director Joyce Ice said in an interview.
Consider it an effort that has reconciled no one -- from the TFP to those
who believe a museum should be free to exhibit legitimate art.
How has this happened in a city that, to outsiders,
seems to revolve around art?
That word "outsider" apparently explains
some of the heat, says Ice, as do other elements of presenting art in a fractured
society. What a stew: The clash of cultures and religions, the influx of newcomers,
an artist from another city, gender issues, the relationship between museums
and the community, speech vs. faith, the church's view of women, the role
of outside protesters . . . . It could fill a book.
It's clear, though, that nothing related to
the computer is a local issue -- not even the tiny gallery filled with "Cyber
Arte." And in the edgy world of contemporary art, there is no "there'
and there is no "here."
Mary Voelz Chandler writes about art and architecture for the News. Contact her at (303) 892-2677 or (text only) chandlerm@RockyMountainNews.com.