Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Challenging The Great White Father

One of the fascinating aspects of the revival of goddess images and the goddess cult in art has been the effort to adapt the image of female divinity to specific situations to do with race as well as gender. The African American artist Romare Bearden (1911-88), in creating the goddess image SHE-BA, looks to Africa as well as European and modernist precedents. These images not only challenge the primacy of Western art, they  challenge the Great White Father as head of the divine hierarchy. 
        This is not a new enterprise. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the protectress of Mexico, owes its origin as an image to the visions of a convert to Christianity named Juan Diego in December 1531 - that is, only ten years after Hernan Cortes completed the conquest of the Aztec Empire and began the process of turning its subjects into Christians. The cult flourished throughout the colonial period, giving rise to many representations of the Virgin as Diego had seen her, and in 1754  a papal bull made the Virgin of Guadalupe the official protectress of New Spain. But she did not remain in the hands of the Spanish.
     In 1810, Miguel de Hidalgo, who began the rebellion that led to Mexican independence, placed her image on his banner.
     The Guadalupe Virgin achieved a position in Mexico that made her in many respects more powerful than Christ Himself or God the Father. It was she to whom most Mexicans appealed-and continue to appeal - in cases of accident or emergency, as is demonstrated by the small votive pictures placed in Mexican churches, where hers is the invariable protective image. This typical image by Juan de Villegas, conventionalized to conform to the apparition that Juan Diego described, is a variant of European representations of the Virgin which had already begun to be imported into Mexico, mostly in the form of prints from the great print shops of Antwerp, then part of the Spanish dominions. But there is also a very real difference: in this version the Mother of Christ is a mestiza - a woman of mixed race.
       It is therefore no surprise to find the contemporary chicana artist Yolanda M. Lopez (1942) representing herself in the guise of the Guadalupe, nor to find that this representation also incorporates aspects of the much more aggressive Aztec deity Coatilcue. Whereas the Virgin remains a passive figure, floating tranquilly in the heavens, borne on the crescent moon, Lopez strides confidently forward. In one hand she grasps a snake, the other holds a star-studded cloak whose folds billow about her as she moves. This is the goddess reinvented for the age of feminism.

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