Delilah Montoya’s (b. 1955) La Guadalupana, is a 15-foot photo-mural and installation, whose photograph is made up of large square tiles that cover the gallery wall. At the centerpiece of the installation is a photograph of a handcuffed man with his back to the viewer as he faces a web of metal bars. He stands shirtless before the viewer as he exposes a large tattoo of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, a religious and iconic Catholic figure. The photograph is in black and white, with the exception of the brightly colored tattoo of the Virgin. Around the large image are smaller color photographs of different mens’ arms and backs that represent the same subject of the Virgin in a variety of poses and styles with red roses surrounding the frame. At the base of the photo-mural, Montoya has assembled a Mexican-American ofrenda (alter), which includes a hand-woven blanket, rosaries, votive candles, and red roses. Small statues with the image of the Virgin are made out of nopal (cactus). At the corners of the altar are small flags that represent the countries of the United States, Mexico, Spain, and Cuba. The New Mexico state flag is also present.
Through this installation, Montoya is showcasing the different means and mediums in which the religious icon of the Virgin of Guadeloupe is represented in Mexican-American culture. Montoya evokes the mediums of photography and installation to document the tradition of devotional practices, through symbols and home altars. In Women Boxers: The New Warriors, Ondine Chavoya writes of La Guadalupana: “the image effectively channels the sacred and the profane and transforms the physical space of a prison cell into a sacred space and the body of the inmate into an ofrenda or altar.” In this way, the body acts as a temple (or alter) in which to worship this religious figure through the tattoo art practice.
The photomontage is a reference to the traditional depiction of the Virgin, in which she stands on a crest moon dressed in a green robe of stars, surrounded by rays of heavenly light. At her feet is a young angel carrying the train of her dress. In Montoya’s interpretation, the central focus is the Virgin tattooed on the back of the inmate surrounded by graphic metal bars. He is framed by images of red roses. Roses are symbols directly connected to the Virgin, for the miracle that she is attributed to is the rose covered cloak that revealed her now iconic image.
The cultural iconographic significance of the Lady of Guadalupe in Mexican culture is also embedded in independence movements in the country’s history. During the Mexican War of Independence (1810) and the Mexican Revolution (1910), revolutionary leaders led their armies with flags emblazoned with images of the Virgin. In 1914, Emiliano Zapata led his army into Mexico City with Guadalupan banners to aid in their fight for land reform. Nobel Prize winning Mexican author Octavio Paz wrote, “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery” .
This piece also acts as an institutional critique of the prison and the incarceration of Latinos. The photographic subject’s stance facing the metal bars with his hands handcuffed behind him, all of which are symbols of incarceration and submissiveness by force. The man, whose photograph is the centerpiece of this installation, was Felix Martínez, an inmate at Albuquerque’s South Valley being held under arrest for a drive-by shooting. A year after this photo was taken, Martinez was found dead in his prison cell. In 1999 the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico purchased La Guadalupana. It was at this exhibition site where the piece turned into an altar for the memory of the deceased inmate when his relatives frequented the museum to leave offerings at the foot of the installation .
What is most striking about this piece is that there are no overt racial signifiers present to make out the race of the subjects. The black and white photographs obliterate the ability to make out skin color, which is how race is usually presumed, and all facial features are turned away from us. Instead, it is through cultural and religious symbols that we deduce his nationality, as the Virgin of Guadeloupe has been identified as the symbol of Catholic Mexicans. This work brings up the issue of race and religion and how religious symbols act as cultural signifiers to identify with a certain nationality or group.
2. Kuusinen, Asta. SHOOTING FROM THE WILD ZONE: A Study of the Chicana Art Photographers Laura Aguilar, Celia Álvarez Muñoz, Delilah Montoya, and Kathy Vargas. Helsinki University Press. Doctoral dissertation. 2006