Review: Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Alma López (eds), Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition

Donna Maria Alexander
University College Cork

In 2001, Alma López’s digital collage, Our Lady appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As part of an exhibition titled Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology, Our Lady, as well as pieces by other Chicana, Hispana and Latina artists, was shown to highlight the combination of traditional iconography and digital technologies. Alma López’s piece depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe clad in wreaths of roses, elevated by a bare-breasted butterfly angel, and adorned with a cloak embossed with symbols of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess. The Virgin retains a confident stance, hands on hips and looking forward, rather than presenting the downturned face found in traditional iconographies of Guadalupe. The image immediately provoked a strong reaction, galvanising protests led by Catholic authorities in Santa Fe. The publication of Our Lady a Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition addresses this controversy.

The book comprises eleven essays which communally investigate the historical, cultural, political, and religious contexts in which the controversy occurred. The collection takes a balanced approach to the controversy with the inclusion of an extensive appendix of selected viewer comments, which provides an outlet for public opinion and a wholesome view of the controversy for readers. The essays in the collection operate under a chiastic structure, a form of wordplay in which words or phrases are reversed, causing an inversion of ideas and arguments. A number of authors employ chiasmus in the titles of the essays, for example, Tey Marianna Nunn’s “It’s Not about the Art in the Folk, It’s about the Folks in the Art: A Curator’s Tale.” All of the essays use chiasmus to investigate the intersecting, opposing and counter-opposing issues of the controversy in Santa Fe. Such oppositions include private/public, church/state, virgin/whore, masculine/feminine, insider/outsider, artistic autonomy/artistic subordination and tradition/progression. The collection also contains an introduction by Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and a visual chapter in the form of a DVD documentary called “I Love Lupe: A Conversation with Ester Hernández, Yolanda M. López, and Alma López.”

The documentary is an appropriate inclusion as it provides a visual discussion of the subject which was brought about by a strong public reaction to a visual work. Ester Hernández and Yolanda M. López contribute to the significance of the visual chapter as they are both responsible for earlier controversial depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The result is an informative and stimulating roundtable on the personal and political significance of the Virgin in the lives and oeuvres of contemporary Chicana, feminist artists.

The collection opens with López’s original press statement, “The Artist of Our Lady (April 2, 2001).” The inclusion of this important document gives readers an opportunity to understand the artist’s own aims and objectives when creating and displaying Our Lady. The press statement introduces issues of gender, religion, culture and place which are developed further by subsequent essays in the collection. This is followed with a contribution by the curator of the Cyber Arte exhibition, Tey Marianna Nunn. Nunn takes a unique auto-ethnographical approach, merging her motives behind the exhibition and her experiences over the course of the controversy with scholarly research. Her essay elucidates the rationale behind the exhibition and the issues of identity, politics and culture that played out over the course of the protests in Santa Fe.

One of the key issues that the collection successfully addresses is the notion of ownership in relation to the Virgin. A number of essays illuminate this issue through historical, geographical and feminist interpretations of the controversy. Essays by Kathleen Fitzcallaghan Jones, Deena J. Gonzalez, Luz Calvo, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba examine, amongst other issues, the territorial dispute which unfolded in Santa Fe concerning who is permitted to talk about, worship, identify with and express the Virgin and where can this happen. These contributions invoke the chiastic nature of the controversy, particularly the issues of secular/sacred, insider/outsider and artistic subordination/artistic progression.

Central to the collection is the notion of re-visionist art and decolonising colonial images. Essays by Clara Román-Odio, Emma Pérez, Cristina Serna, Catrióna Rueda Esquibel and Alicia Gaspar de Alba strike an exemplary balance between close critical readings of the art in question and feminist politics and theory. Of particular interest is Serna’s argument that López’s digital rendering of the Virgin is a healing process involving the recovering of indigenous associations and radical reinterpretations that seek to humanise the Virgin of Guadalupe and to render images that speak to feminist women and lesbians. Serna’s discourse is fomented by her reference to other Chicana feminist expressions of the Virgin, exemplifying an interesting intertextuality that merits further study. Thus, this collection is a reputable research tool for both students and scholars of American studies, particularly those invested in the areas of Hispanic art and religion.

The written section of the collection closes with an extensive discussion by Alma López of the significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in her life, the process of her activist art, and the evolution of the Virgin image in both art history and within her own oeuvre. This essay brings together a number of the issues discussed in previous essays, including the decolonisation of the Virgin and the importance of revision and recovery in art.

Our Lady of Controversy is a necessary contribution to studies in Chicana/Hispana/Latina feminism, art criticism and religion. As well as providing in-depth and well-balanced discussions and interrogations of the controversy in Santa Fe, the collection indicates the necessity for further debate in relation to the treatment and reception of women and the female form in radical and revisionist art. The recent protests against López’s “Our Lady and Other Queer Santas” exhibition in University College Cork in June 2011 highlights the ongoing debate concerning López’s activist art. This collection provides a template for further academic research of challenging religious and artistic topics.