Albuquerque Journal

Sunday, February 17, 2002

Warring Uses Clash Over Symbols

By Bill Hume
Editorial Page Editor

When is an image a religious symbol and when is it a secular cultural

New Mexico explores that question from time to time, most recently in an often vituperative community discussion over the depiction of a Virgin Mary in a floral bathing suit in the Cyber Arte exhibition at Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art.

The image, by California artist Alma Lopez, depicted the shapely female figure surrounded by the universally recognized ray pattern characteristic of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, said to have been given to the Indian Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531. That use of the religious icon as a departure point for a contemporary cultural message was widely denounced. Contrast that situation with the case of the Bernalillo County cross. Until the mid-'80s, the county seal displayed a prominent cross in its blue sky background, along with the motto "Con Esta Vencemos (with this we conquer)."

ACLU lawyers argued it was a state advancement of religion. Its defenders argued religion wasn't involved, that the cross was merely a symbolic secular recognition of the historical significance of religion.

The late U.S. District Court Judge Juan G. Burciaga agreed with the secular interpretation, as did a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Upon further appeal to the full circuit court panel, however, the cross lost: "Plaintiffs presented highly persuasive evidence that the seal leads the average observer to the conclusion that the county government was 'advertising' the Catholic faith."

Other religious icons are widely used in official New Mexico imagery and popular culture. For example, the sun symbol that graces the state flag and is the universal state symbol is a religious symbol that Zia Pueblo has said it would like to have back. Kokopoelli, the randy hump-backed flute player of rock art, Mimbres pottery and Santa Fe schlock, is a religious figure.

Alma Lopez, who is a Catholic, said that her so-called "Bikini Virgin" was not meant to denigrate, but was a playful expression of her own faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe and was intended to portray the Virgin as a strong contemporary woman relevant to today. Were it not for the characteristic rays emanating around Lopez' image, it would have had no relevance to the Virgin of Guadalupe - and would not have conveyed the artist's intent.

Probably it was the sex appeal that was perceived as sacrilege.

Today, we have a new Virgin interpretation, in the Albuquerque Museum.

"Nuestra Madre, (our mother)" is a large painting displayed in the modern section of "The Road to Aztlan; Art From a Mythic Homeland" - a striking exhibition which just opened. In it, another female Hispanic artist has used the Virgin of Guadalupe as a departure point to make an artistic statement about the interrelationship of Christian and ancient Mexica religious traditions in the culture of America. There is no sex appeal in this image.

"(Yolanda M.) López, recasts foundational feminine religious icons, linking them to the contemporary life of Chicanas...," states the directory notes for "Road to Aztlan." "López's painting, Nuestra Madre, depicts the Mexica deity with all the attributes of the Virgin of Guadalupe, thereby fusing the two figures and calling attention to their centrality in the Mexica-Mexican-Chicano/a social imaginary."

"Nuestra Madre" depicts a figure with the menacing, wide-mouthed, large-earringed face of an Aztec deity, with two giant Alley Oop hands extended palm-out, framing pendulous bare breasts. The torso is obscured with a kilt of interlocking legs or snakes, half of which end with the head of the feathered serpent. Giant Alley Oop feet firmly placed on a crescent moon - also found at the bottom of the original Guadalupe composition - complete the figure, which is surrounded by the ray pattern.

So far as this writer knows, nobody has objected to "Nuestra Madre." In the context of the magnificent collection presented in "Road to Aztlan," it fits right in. Its imagery makes an eloquent artistic statement about the link from today's children of Aztlan back to pre-Columbian times and the work of artisans from more than 1,000 years ago, included in the exhibition. "Nuestra Madre, like the bikini image, like the Virgin of Guadalupe on the chest of a boxer, on the hood of a lowrider, or in the insignia of a barrio gang, is an image defining a cultural identity. It is at least as legitimate in a secular sense as the Zia religious symbol on the New Mexico flag. But that doesn't ease the pain of those who cherish it as a central religious icon. There is no satisfactory solution to this dualism of symbols.

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