Seven years on, discussion over 'Our Lady' is ongoing



Courtesy image
Photo: The Virgin of Guadalupe still inspires artist Alma López, she says, because, ‘It’s so much a part of who I am culturally.’ The outfit worn by a female wrestler in the 2006 work Luchadora is based on the virgin’s traditional clothing, she said.

Photo: Alicia Gaspar de Alba/For The New Mexican. Alma López is working on two large public art projects for Los Angeles. She says the Our Lady controversy launched ‘the most challenging and difficult time in my art career.’
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Anne Constable | The New Mexican
1/19/2008 - 1/15/08
Seven years ago next month, a digital print of the Virgin of Guadalupe garbed in a modest costume fashioned from pink, white and yellow roses, set off an emotional protest that bitterly divided the community.

Many traditional Catholics, who revere the traditional image of the virgin who appeared to a Mexican farmer in 1531, were offended by the piece and objected to its inclusion in an exhibit in a state-supported museum.

The archbishop of Santa Fe called the model for the Our Lady artwork a "tart and a prostitute." One of the main protesters declared a "holy war" on the Museum of International Folk Art for presenting the cutting-edge exhibit titled, "Cyber Arte: Tradition meets Technology." And the Hispana curator was accused of publishing cyber porn, engaging in Catholic bashing and more.

The artist, Alma López, and the curator, Tey Marianna Nunn, were under fire for months, and they still consider the controversy a defining moment in their lives.

For some in the community who took offense at López's Latina with attitude and the decision to present Our Lady in the "Cyber Arte" exhibit despite warnings that it would incite the community, the anger is still just below the surface. Henry J. Casso, the founding president of the Queen of Heaven Our Lady of Guadalupe Society in Albuquerque, said, "People in Northern New Mexico have very long memories."

Just last year, Nunn said that some of those who objected to the display of Our Lady in Santa Fe tried to stop her from appearing on a panel at OFFCenter, a public art gallery in Albuquerque, which was presenting a small exhibit and conference on the Virgin of Guadalupe. The exhibit included many contemporary interpretations of the virgin, including an almost life-sized statue of Our Lady carved from a single log of aromatic cedar and ornamented with aspen "rays of light."

"It wasn't a very happy moment," Nunn recalled.

She said the whole experience has made her a little gun-shy, "especially when people question my qualifications."

Modern vs. tradition

A Hispana and native New Mexican, Nunn has a doctorate from The University of New Mexico in Latin American studies and was the curator of contemporary Hispano and Latino collections at the Museum of International Folk Art for more than eight years before becoming director of visual arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Her original intent in putting together the "Cyber Arte" exhibition was to highlight the Hispanic arts and cultural presence on the Internet, Nunn said. She chose the work of four artists, including three from New Mexico, who grapple with how to be modern and traditional in their art at the same time.

"I think contemporary Hispano and Latino art is really complex, and issues should not be glossed over. The role of the artist is to address these many layers," Nunn said.

Last year, for the first time, she wrote about the controversy in an essay subtitled, "Chicana Art, Hispanic Identity and the Politics of Place and Gender in Nuevo Mexico," for a book published by the University of Arizona Press and edited by Phillip B. Gonzales.

Her account describes how, in the 1970s, Chicana artists began replacing the virgin as a passive woman with downcast eyes with one with whom they could identify — a strong, active, mobile, karate-kicking, long-distance-running mother of God.

A chilling effect

Nunn described the protest in detail and its impact on the museum, including its apology to the archbishop, the decision, which she disagreed with, to close the exhibition early and threats from members of the Legislature to cut museum funds.

Since the controversy, she wrote, "many New Mexico Hispanic artists who work in traditional styles have experimented with different versions of La Virgen. In some representations she is holding out her arms; in others her foot peeks out from under her robes; still other traditional retablos (done with tongue in cheek) depict her wearing a rose-covered 1930s bathing outfit."

But the events had a chilling effect on museums, with some shying away from controversy and, when such work is exhibited, accompanying it with "large disclaimer signs," according to Nunn.

"It is almost as if the protesters not only silenced the museum but silenced themselves and those who fight alongside them in similar cultural battles," she wrote.

"I have come to the conclusion that culture wars are inevitable," Nunn said. "Representing Latino art and culture is problematic and will continue to be so as demographics shift and the Hispanic communities jostle for position."

Finding support

López responded to the controversy by starting a Web site where she posted articles and e-mails for and against Our Lady. The Internet, she said, is a "safe place for people to have a voice."

In a recent interview, López said the response to Our Lady in New Mexico launched "the most challenging and difficult time in my art career," in large part because of the "negative comments and energy" directed at her, her work and at other people. On the other hand, she said, "It really made me look closer at my work and be more introspective, and that's a good thing."

Her image of the virgin was never intended to be disrespectful, she reiterated. "I was really honest and sincere in terms of my experience," she said, and the support of many others "affirmed the idea that my experience with this image wasn't necessarily unique, or so different."

Although she believes the uproar kept her out of some art exhibitions, it also provided opportunities for her to present her views in public forums and on college campuses where she and her work are still regular subjects of discussion.

López has appeared at more than 50 lectures and conferences around the world since the "Cyber Arte" exhibit. At least 28 essays or publications have been written about her work, she said, including Nunn's piece.

'Lady' lives on

Since 2001, the artist, who was born in Mexico, baptized Catholic and grew up in East L.A. with images of the virgin in her home, has participated in at least 30 group exhibitions and five solo shows, including one in 2005 at the Capilla Brittanica in Mexico City celebrating the 11th anniversary of LesVoz, a nonprofit feminist lesbian human-rights organization. She has received five grants, including a California Community Foundation Visual Arts grant for midcareer artists and a 2005 Durfee Foundation grant to travel and exhibit in Mexico City.

Our Lady was recently selected to be on the cover of a Penguin book titled Virgin in Flames, by Chris Abani. López has also been working as a designer for various events and conferences including the 2006 Lesbian March in Mexico City and this year's Chicana/o Literature and Art conference in Alicante, Spain.

She will be a speaker at the MALCS (Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambios Sociales) conference in Utah in August. She also plans to participate in a panel in late March at the NACCS (National Association of Chicana/o Studies) conference in Austin, where a roundtable on Our Lady is scheduled. According to the organization's abstract, participants will be reflecting on how the artwork challenged "the political and gender economy of the New Mexico santero tradition ... Chicana redeployments of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the disruption of community expectations of a cultural icon and misogynistic reprisals of violence directed at the artist and museum curators," according to a synopsis.

Her recent work includes two large public art projects commissioned by the city of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department that she expects to complete this year and several digital video projects, including a 20-minute short documentary titled Boi Hair in which three lesbians discuss their short hair issues.

New directions

The Virgin of Guadalupe still inspires her, she said, because, "It's so much a part of who I am culturally." She appears in the form of a masked female wrestler in a new series of nine small acrylic portraits. The outfit, including a vest with stars, worn by the female wrestler in a silk-screen print titled Luchadora made in 2006 is based on the traditional clothing of the Virgin of Guadalupe, López said.

"Most of my work comes from the experiences I had growing up, images remembered from my home, neighborhood, popular culture," López said, explaining that her father enjoyed watching lucha libre, or professional wrestling.

López said she keeps in touch with Nunn and might eventually even move to New Mexico, where she hopes to teach and continue creating visual and public art.

Meanwhile, interest in Our Lady continues. Later this month, López will present her work, including the famous virgin assuming a "Latina Power pose," at an event at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, in conjunction with an exhibit titled "The Goat's Dance" by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbe.

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or

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By David Lopez
(Submitted: 01/21/2008 8:33 am)
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The archbishop of Santa Fe called the model for the Our Lady artwork a "tart and a prostitute." I'll take the newspaper's word that this is an accurate quote.

I think that judging this model in this way is way worse than any depiction of Our Lady, even if he thinks it is distasteful.

By Karla Duarte
(Submitted: 01/20/2008 6:23 pm)
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I'm old enough to remember a few brief years when the Catholics tried to get back to the message of the Gospel with an emphasis on the Beatitudes and shed sludge left over from the Inquisition and the distraction of idolatry.

By Julian Sanchez
(Submitted: 01/20/2008 11:43 am)
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When characters like Alma López and Tey Marianna Nunn who’s faith are water-down and running down the drain of course can not see, recognized or respect the faith of the Christian believers and especially Catholics. I saw the image and it’s a disgrace which belittle the very Imagine of the Mother of God. The Muslim world holds the highest respect for their faith and anyone defying what is sacred to them would have been shot to death. Some so called ‘artists’ who lack human dignity and self-respect will go so far as to interpreter sacred art for their own gain since they don’t have the capability to create anything beneficial to the community. Nunn and Joyce Ice should have been fired since day one for permitting such blasphemous art into the International folk art museum. She knew what is holy to the Catholic Church but didn’t care! Again, I didn’t know they’re still around and again should be fired!

By Oyegi Thamu
(Submitted: 01/20/2008 10:05 am)
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I always thought that the pose was representative of a mother looking down at her child. I can't imagine someone thinking that a mother is "weak".

By Paddy Cummings
(Submitted: 01/20/2008 9:10 am)
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How silly and immature - to see the strength of a woman only in a karate chopping long-distance runner and think a woman who gazes down at a peasant is somehow weak -- one might call that the "literalist error" in art. But one has the sure and certain hope that Our Lady of Guadalupe will overcome this ignorant mode of presentation as she has overcome all those that have come before and those not yet appearing.