War of the Roses: 'Our Lady' 10 years on Casey Sanchez | The New Mexican
Posted: Thursday, May 05, 2011

Anybody living in Santa Fe in the spring of 2001 could scarcely forget her. She was called Our Lady, and she was clad in roses. Not enough of them, apparently.

She stood with arms akimbo, her face cocked defiantly, her back cloaked in an Aztec cloth, her chest and waist wreathed in a garland of roses that gloriously framed her toned midriff. A butterfly-winged, bare-breasted angel held her aloft.

She was artist Alma López's highly personal vision of the Virgen de Guadalupe, steeped in the urban spirituality of Mexican-immigrant Los Angeles, where La Virgencita may have been glimpsed outside of churches more often than inside — dangling as an air freshener from a rearview mirror, held aloft by civil rights activists at marches and protests, or adorning a mural on a street corner, where she terrified the daylights out of graffiti sprayers.

López's Our Lady had been shown in California and Mexico in 1999 and 2000. She had appeared on the cover of a Mexico City magazine. But when she came to Santa Fe at the Museum of International Folk Art — as an 18-by-20-inch digital collage featured in an exhibit of work by four Latina artists called Cyber Arte — she repulsed a small but highly organized group of conservative, mostly Latino Catholics who saw her as a desecration of a sacred religious image. Three weeks after the exhibit's opening, Anthony Trujillo, now a deacon at Santa Fe's San Isidro Church, and police chaplain José Villegas met with museum directors and asked that the piece be immediately removed. The men's demands were recounted in the local papers the next day. Within a couple of weeks, the attention had spawned a high-profile protest movement. Our Lady became known as "the bikini virgin" in a wave of sensationalist newspaper articles (some printed in The Santa Fe New Mexican), and Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe referred to her as "a tart" and "a street woman."

Throughout that spring, death and bomb threats pulsed through the phone line of the exhibit's curator, Tey Marianna Nunn (the FBI was brought in to bug and monitor the museum's phone system). A museum-sponsored public discussion held at the Sweeney Center on the provocative piece of art — at which López and Nunn were to talk — was cut off at the start by police, who cited the potential for violence.

"Upon news of the cancellation, López and I were immediately surrounded by male audience members, most shouting: 'Burn her, burn them!'" Nunn recalls. "We were escorted away by security staff and U.S. marshals who helped us get back to the museum in a getaway car and motorcade."

Nunn's account of the protest spectacle is one of 11 essays included in Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López's Irreverent Apparition, a new book out last month as part of the University of Texas Press' Chicana Matters series. The book was edited by López and her wife, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, a novelist and professor of English and Chicano Studies at UCLA. The book not only recounts the controversial months of protest but also includes contributions from academics who teach about the cultural controversy sparked by López's work and from artists and activists who are influenced by her art. Each book also includes a copy of I Love Lupe, a 48-minute DVD documentary featuring a conversation with López and artists Ester Hernández and Yolanda M. López, who are known for work that features provocative cultural reappropriations of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Today, Nunn is the visual-arts director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. But for a few topsy-turvy months in 2001, it looked like she might have no future in the art world at all. Friends and colleagues broke ties with her. Even her judgment as a curator was called into question. "The artwork was called blasphemous and sacrilegious. I was called insensitive and malicious," Nunn writes. "I was accused of trafficking in cyber porn and of Catholic bashing. I was told God would strike me down, and I was even accused of not being Hispanic. It was declared that I was starting a new religion and promoting Satanism. Members of our own [museum's] Board of Regents called me to demand that I go immediately into the gallery and remove the piece." Many of the book's essays touch upon why this religious art controversy was different from other ones that gripped the nation during the culture wars of the 1990s. An essay by Kathleen Fitzcallaghan Jones examines how the debate over Our Lady became a proxy for discussing issues of insider Hispanos and outsider Anglos — even though the curator and artists of the show were all Latinas, most of them New Mexico natives. Historian Deena González recounts the colonial history of New Mexicans' Madonna, La Conquistadora, to explain why so many of the state's residents were angered by López's art. Many of the essays touch upon López's other work, such as Juan Soldado, a digital collage of the Mexican folk saint, whose adherents appeal for help with family issues related to crimes, courts, and the immigration system.

Cristina Serna writes about how López's digital print Lupe and Sirena in Love played a central role in the 2006 Marcha Lésbica, a march of lesbians and their supporters in Mexico City. López's provocative poster features a young woman with her fist raised; on her bicep is a tattoo of a mermaid and La Virgen de Guadalupe holding each other in a romantic embrace, enclosed within a stylized Sacred Heart. Leagues more controversial than the work López featured in Santa Fe, the image also shows how marginalized Latino groups, such as Mexican lesbians, feel a need to reclaim religious images to redeem and legitimize their own stories.

Born in Los Mochis, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, and raised as a Catholic, López said she created the Our Lady image using a photograph of performance artist and rape survivor Raquel Salinas as the Virgen and cultural activist Raquel Gutierrez as the bare-breasted butterfly angel. Inspired by Sandra Cisneros' essay "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess," López posed the Virgen in the weight-on-one-foot contrapposto stance of Michelangelo's David and gave her face a no-nonsense scowl. It's a look that López said her mom and aunts made when dealing with their wayward kids.

"It's the conflation of those two images I have in my head, one seeing as an art student, one growing up in a family of strong women," López said in an interview with Pasatiempo. "I'm very culturally Catholic. It's a female image that reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in. I still wear a Virgen de Guadalupe pendant. I see it more as a connection to being Mexican and being Chicana."

Ten years later, Trujillo isn't buying López's claim of cultural Catholicism. "As a deacon in the Catholic church for 18 years, I would say that she is not Catholic. She may call herself that, but she is not," he told Pasatiempo. "A Catholic would not do that to the blessed Virgin Mary."

At the height of the controversy in spring 2001, Trujillo filed a formal legal petition to have Our Lady removed from the museum. He was also one of the central figures in organizing prayer vigils and protest rallies that galvanized thousands of New Mexicans against the artwork. Even now, his only regret is that the local press, he said, didn't convey the full scope of his motives. "They tried to keep it focused on that image. It wasn't just that image," he said. "We were asking for the whole exhibit to be taken down. The exhibit itself was designed to look like a Spanish mission church. We have the Stations of the Cross. That's what Alma López's thing was, one of those stations. That's exactly what they called them."

Trujillo, who noted that one of the exhibit's artists, Marion Martínez, is his cousin, did not feel he was impinging on First Amendment rights by asking for the artwork to be removed. "My tax dollars were paying for that exhibit," Trujillo said. "They had another show with several other artists in a downtown gallery. We made no noise about that. We weren't paying for that."

López countered that the real offense of her painting was not the spirit of its intention or its fleshy renderings. Instead, she said, she got caught up in a power struggle with a select group of men who were uncomfortable viewing an unorthodox image of a powerful woman. "The way that men were looking at this image, the way they described her was really hateful," López said. "Other people saw her as naked. The archbishop called her a tart and a prostitute. José Villegas saw her as the devil. It made me question how these people look at women."

López pointed to Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was commissioned by Pope Julius II. "The angels are nude. Adam and Eve are nude. God is nude. There is no fig leaf. They are not wearing a bikini," López said. "I wonder how New Mexicans who had such an issue with Our Lady wearing roses — how they would react if they were standing in the Sistine Chapel."

That doesn't convince Trujillo. "She would say that. That's nonsense. It was never anything about that. It was the disrespect to Our Lady," he said. "It's just the whole image. When the image is changed, the message is changed, so what is her message? It's not devotion. I would never depict my mother like that."

Yet that's exactly what López was doing — depicting her mother and other moms like her. In a statement quoted in the book, López writes, "Maybe because I love women, I see beauty and strength. Mary was an awesome woman and mother with a difficult task. She had a child that was not her husband's, she kept her son safe from a murderous king, she suffered her son's struggles and death, and most of all she raised her son to have love and compassion for everyone, including female prostitutes. I think Mary was a lot like some of our mothers."

That the image attracted so little protest when it was shown in Mexico City, where the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most visited Catholic sites in the world, makes one wonder what it is about Northern New Mexico that fomented months of protest, eventually forcing the museum to close its exhibit four months early at the end of October 2001. For his part, Trujillo used a statement attributed to New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace: Everything that works logically in any other place will not work in New Mexico. Trujillo acknowledged that the debate caused real rifts in friendships and families, but he also said, "A lot of good came out of that. People really wanted to know the story of Guadalupe. There was a new spirit brought to people's faith. Catholics stood up for their faith in ways that they hadn't for hundreds of years."

López insisted the controversy over Our Lady had little to do with Northern New Mexico and more to do with a media culture that lingered on the subject's bare legs and stomach, ignored the context of the show, and failed to include the voices of the state's residents who supported her art. During the controversy, she said, other New Mexican Hispanic women organized a show called Las Malcriadas at Emanations Studio Gallery, which featured alternative interpretations of La Virgen de Guadalupe and other religious icons. The show was not heavily covered by the press. In 2008, López painted a work called Our Lady of Controversy II, which features the same woman from Our Lady wearing bright red boxing gloves. The message is unambiguous. "The model is holding the gloves on her hips — not in an aggressive manner, though. Rather, she is saying, 'If I need to defend myself, I will do so,' " López said. "She is not going to be caught unaware like she was during the controversy."

As for the original artwork that caused such offense, López said, "It's now part of the landscape." The original image is stored in Santa Fe at the Museum of International Folk Art.

Nunn cited a few key behind-the-scenes moves that allowed this controversy to build to such a fevered emotional pitch. In her essay, she notes that, as a curator, she could not count on the unconditional support of the museum's board. Without actually naming Frank Ortiz, now deceased, Nunn writes, "One of our museum regents was a multi-generational Hispanic New Mexican, a devout Catholic, a Knight of Malta, and a former U.S. ambassador to several Latin American countries. ... Our regent actively helped incite the protesting faithful rather than explain the museum's point of view, thus positioning himself as a champion of the people and at the same time disparaging the museum that he was charged to advise."

While realizing that Our Lady became a flash point for how traditional New Mexico Hispanos have tried to deal with cultural change, she also maintained that officials from the Museum of New Mexico system may have erred by trying to be politically sensitive to some members of the Hispanic community while being unfamiliar with the many groups and identities that make up Hispano life here. The result, according to Nunn, was that "they empowered one segment of the community and ignored the others."

In retrospect, would she have done anything differently or not included López's work? In an interview, Nunn said, "I don't ever regret this for a moment."

In her essay in the book, Nunn takes a different lesson from the controversy. "This was an extremely complicated, intricate, intense, and in some ways unique episode," she writes. "So much so that I am convinced that the Virgin was on both sides."

Editor's note: This item appears in the May 6, 2011 edition of Pasatiempo.