Thursday, December 6, 2001
She is standing, hands folded in prayer, her head haloed in golden light. Her face is calm and her eyes are gently closed. In another scene she is holding the baby Jesus, looking serene and holy. Flash forward some 30-odd years and she is clinging to him as he heads toward his death. Christians the world over pray to the Virgin Mary as their mother in heaven, yet there is little variety in the tone with which she is portrayed. There is very little emphasis on Mary as a whole woman.
In its tenth "Images of the Virgin" exhibition, Galeria Tonantzin of San Juan Bautista aims to give contemporary perspective to a figure that means so much to so many. The show''s focus is the Virgin''s appropriation into different parts of culture: To amend Mary''s image is to challenge tradition, so by gathering portrayals of black and Hispanic Madonnas, somewhat mundane Marys doing household chores, sexy Virgins, and even the classical pious images, the gallery compiles a mosaic that redefines a powerful religious icon.
That theme drives at the heart of Galeria Tonantzin''s reason for existing. The gallery is dedicated to promoting positive images of powerful women. It takes its name from Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of femininity and motherhood, whose traditions and lore have been intertwined with that of the Virgin Mary.
Mary''s appeal "goes beyond biblical conception," says gallery director Jennifer Colby. The re-interpretation of the Virgin stems, in part, from the legend of Guadalupe, a Mexican town where Mary is said to have appeared to a native convert in 1531. As the story goes, she asked that a church be built there in her honor. The Virgen de Guadalupe became a symbol of Mexican freedom, and the shrine built on that spot is considered the holiest in Mexico. To make Mary their own, the Mexicans gave her traits of Tonantzin, weaving the pagan fertility goddess and the sacred Virgin together.
The show combines those two elements, as well. Some of the more controversial art exhibited is by Marilyn Mozingo, who defies conventional perceptions by painting Mary and Jesus as African, as in "Blood on the Darkness." Lyn Aisawa''s collage "Circle 107" displays the tensions of being a woman with splendid ingenuity, using a variety of magazine clippings and media to make its points. Along with these are many assemblages and collages, photographs, sculpture and paintings by local artists such as Nancy Niles, Sandelle, Pat Zuniga and Carol Whitehall, as well as other women across North and Central America.
This year is also the eighth "Virgin Image Conference," featuring speakers Anna Marie Sayers of the Costanoan Research Center; Elinor Gadon, author of The Once and Future Goddess; Diana Garcia, CSUMB professor and poet; Carmen Leon, a featured artist who will be discussing the connection between Tonantzin and Guadalupe; and director Jennifer Colby, whose art also adorns the walls.
What is most striking about the exhibit is not its irreverence, but the variety of ways in which the artists see Mary. Traditional and modern pieces are shown side by side, causing the universal mother figure, usually predictably posed and conceived, to look like she could be living in any time or place: in post-medieval Europe, in the Middle East in the time of Christ, in a tribe in Africa, or just down the street. Her pristine image then becomes accessible to those who regard her with adulation, making her one of us at last.