Our Lady of Controversy

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Book Blogger Appreciation Week celebration to kick off Latina/o Heritage Month. I’ll be featuring a number of books by and about Latina/os from September 15-October 15 to celebrate.

I’ve long since held a fascination with artwork based on the Virgen de Guadalupe. A revered Catholic icon, La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican peasant, in the deserts outside Mexico City in 1531. Ever since then, her image has meant different things to different people, and the use of her image in artwork continues to this day (in fact, I have an online collection of it here).

In 2001, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico invited Chicana lesbian artist/activist Alma López to participate in a cyber art exhibit showcasing artwork by Chicana artists. One of López’s contributions, a digital collage titled Our Lady, ignited a firestorm of controversy and became the target of massive organized protests. Michael J. Sheehan, archbishop of Santa Fe at the time, stirred up more drama by referring to Our Lady as “a tart” and “a streetwalker.”  Though the exhibition’s curator, Tey Marianna Nunn, fought for–and won–the right to keep Our Lady displayed for the duration of the exhibit, both Nunn and López received a barrage of hate mail and death threats. By printing the artwork on the front page of papers (without context and without permission) under headlines referring to the “Bikini Virgin,” the media–local, national, and international–sensationalized matters even more.

In the decade since these events initially occurred, several major scholars have analyzed the controversy through the contexts of feminism, colonialism, queer theory, art theory, and Chicana/o history. Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition, edited by Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Alma López, is a collection of essays and personal accounts that offers some of these diverse scholarly perspectives.

In reading these essays, a few things about the controversy immediately stood out to me: 1) the people at the center of the protests were all male; 2) at the root of the protests was misogyny and homophobia; and 3) the protesters all believed the image of La Virgen was theirs–“tasteful” artistic renderings of La Virgen (i.e. fully clothed, modest, subservient) were fine, but anyone who stepped out of this box was accused of blasphemy and/or not being a “real” Catholic. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the past decade–when this book was released, protesters descended upon Amazon.com to negatively rate the book and demand that Amazon stop selling it. Their protests are based solely on the book cover, Our Lady of Controversy II (2008), which is based on the original Our Lady.

In her first essay in the book (originally written at the height of the controversy in April 2001), Lopez raises poignant arguments in response to the protesters’ assertions:

If my work is removed, that means I have no right to express myself as an artist and as a woman. It means there must be something wrong and sexually perverted with my female body. It means that it’s okay for men to look at our bodies as ugly. It means that as Chicanas we can only be sexualized or only be virgins. It means that only men can tell us how to look at La Virgen. It means that we cannot look upon La Virgen as an image of a strong woman like us.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba uses a different approach in her essay, “Devil in a Rose Bikini,” asking who La Virgen belongs to:

Does she belong to the Catholic Church, which has used the image to disseminate a miraculous legend of conversion and colonialism since the sixteenth century? Does she belong to the native people of Mexico and their descendants, for whom she represents the syncretized face of their Aztec creation goddess, Tonantzin? Does she belong to Alma López and any other Chicana/Mexicana/Latina artists who choose to represent her in ways that signify their own lives? … [These are] questions about power.

Personally, I love Our Lady. I see defiant, beautiful, Chicanas who carry La Virgen in them, and I see La Virgen as a strong woman who is tired of being a passive object. Performance artist Raquel Salinas, the woman portraying La Virgen in Our Lady, is a rape survivor who posed for the portrait partly as a way to heal herself; this adds yet another layer of context to the artwork. Yet all that protesters would allow themselves to read into the artwork were sexualization, immodesty, and blasphemy.

This is a scholarly book with somewhat of a niche audience, but those who are interested in queer feminist art and Chicana/o history will not be disappointed. The book also comes with a DVD, I Love Lupe, featuring a conversation between three Chicana artists who have all produced important Virgen art: Yolanda Lopez, Ester Hernandez, and Alma López. This book/DVD set is a valuable addition to any college library (putting my money where my mouth is, I requested that the college I work at purchase it, and I’m happy to report that they did).

Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition was released by University of Texas Press on April 1, 2011.

Publisher/Year: UT Press, 2011
Source: Library
Format: Print

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4 comments

  1. Audra (Unabridged Chick)

    Wow — I’m totally unfamiliar with this book and the artist/artwork but wow! So devastating to see the negative response to López’s work — and frustrating, disappointing — as a woman who grew up looking for women to relate to in the Catholic Church. Radical interpretations of Mary would have been so welcome! :/ Great review — thanks for lifting this work up!

  2. Emily Jane

    I grew up in Santa Fe, and attended this exhibit during a school field trip…I believe I would have been in middle school at the time. The artwork made an impression, and I remember talking briefly about why it was controversial. It would be great to read this and revisit it all, as I was a bit young to fully appreciate what was going on. Thankful to the teacher who took us for exposing us to that, though! Very interesting.

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