Beliefnet
Santa Fe, N.M., April 5 (AP)--When regents of the Museum of New Mexico met to discuss a bikini-clad Virgin Mary collage, the discussion wasn't about sex or sacrilege. It was about seating. Wednesday's regents' meeting was overwhelmed by some 750 people wanting to debate whether museum officials should remove a bare-midriff image of Mary from the state-funded Museum of International Folk Art.

Hundreds of demonstrators, held outside by fire marshals, chanted "Cancel the Meeting!" until the regents unanimously voted to do just that before anyone had a chance to testify. Board members said the discussion was likely ill-timed, coming just before Catholics celebrate Easter Sunday. "Holy Week is Holy Week plus the fact that we want to make sure everything is done correctly," said board President Wood Arnold, explaining why the meeting was rescheduled to the week of April 15.

"Our Lady," by Los Angeles artist Alma Lopez, has come under attack by many Roman Catholics, including Archbishop Michael Sheehan who said the work depicts Mary "as if she were a tart" and should be removed. Some have asked for the artwork to be removed immediately, but Arnold refused, saying the move would require a vote.

The Lopez retablo includes a photographic image of a model representing the Virgin of Guadalupe, dressed in a floral two-piece outfit that resembles a bikini bathing suit. But Lopez, who met reporters after the meeting, doesn't believe ``bikini'' is a fair description. "This is very conservative," she said.

Lopez added she saw nothing offensive in showing the image of a strong, modern woman, perhaps outspoken, perhaps even revolutionary. "Even if I look really hard at 'Our Lady' and the works of many Chicana artists, I don't see what is so offensive, honestly. I see beautiful bodies that are gifts from our creator."

On Tuesday, Giuliani appointed a 20-member "decency commission" to judge the morality of public art after the Brooklyn Museum featured a 5-foot-tall photograph of a nude black woman portraying Jesus surrounded by disciples, titled "Yo Mama's Last Supper.'' Giuliani called the photo "disgusting" and "anti-Catholic."

Both Sheehan and Giuliani argue the works are particularly offensive given that they are displayed in state-funded institutions. "I don't believe I'm promoting censorship," Sheehan said. "My objection to the picture is not on the basis of morals, as if the bishop was disapproving of a particular movie ... My objection is on the basis of the insult to the religious beliefs of a very large number of people that look at the Virgin Mary as being very holy. She is depicted in a floral bikini as if she were a tart."

Lopez, in a written statement Monday, said she grew up in Los Angeles with images of the Virgen, as the word is spelled in Spanish, and that Mary belongs to everybody. "The Virgen is everywhere. She's on tattoos, stickers, posters, air freshener cans, shirts and corner store murals as well as church walls," she wrote.

Lopez feels under attack by Sheehan and Jose Villegas, a Santa Fe resident who said he was outraged by the bikini and by the bare-breasted female angel included in the digital retablo. "It violated the sacred boundaries of our culture," Villegas has said.

Dunnington argued that the Virgin was invoked as a revolutionary icon for Mexican independence in 1810. That invocation was expanded later to include all ethnic and racial groups and genders. "If she is an icon of freedom, the protesters then have to accord the artist equal liberty," Dunnington said. "There has to be the right to freedom of expression. That is what she has stood for."

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