Yolanda Lopez was an American painter, printmaker, video artist, installation artist, photographer, and educator, Her work focused on Mexican American women, and she often used representations of the venerated Virgin of Guadalupe as a feminist icon. Lopez’s art exposed the contradictions of America’s complicated relationship with Mexico and the Mexican American communities in the Southwest.
Lopez grew up in San Diego, the oldest of three sisters, whose mother was a single parent. Growing up in a household of women, her perspective as a feminist took shape early in her life.
In 1968, when Lopez was a student at San Francisco State University, she became part of the Chicano movement and went on strike with other students to demand the establishment of an ethnic studies program. In 1969, she superimposed an image of the American flag over images of Los Siete, seven young Latinos accused of killing a plainclothes policeman. The men were acquitted of all charges the following year.
In the early 1970s, Lopez enrolled at San Diego State University and graduated in 1975 with a degree in painting and drawing. In 1978, she made a black and white poster which featured a Native American in an Aztec headdress aggressively saying, “Who is the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim,” alluding to immigration, conquest, and the films of John Wayne. In 1979, she received her M.F.A. in Fine Arts from the University of California, San Diego. For her final project she painted a series of her own version of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This work was so radical that the university judges didn’t understand it. As the only Latina in her class, she had to explain to her professors – most of whom were not Christian – that the Virgin of Guadalupe was the Mexican version of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of Mexicans.
For this project, “Guadalupe Triptych,” Lopez painted three generations of women – her grandmother, mother, and herself – in the traditional triptych form used in a church’s altarpiece. The Virgin of Guadalupe is Mary the mother of Jesus and the patroness of Mexico. A painting of the artist herself, depicted as an athletic jogger and wrapped in the Virgin’s mantel, is in the triptych’s center panel. In the left panel is Lopez’s mother, sewing the Virgin’s starry blue mantel on a sewing machine. In the right panel is Lopez’s maternal grandmother, a mestiza Mexican, sitting on a stool that is covered by the mantle. Her grandmother holds a rattlesnake which she has just skinned. The rattlesnake signifies the end of life and a rebirth into a spiritual realm. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is more than the traditional Catholic representation of Mary. She is an adaptation of an indigenous Aztec icon Coatlique, the Earth Goddess also known as Tonantzin, the revered Mother Goddess. For Lopez these Aztec deities were identified as primal forces of life and death.
Her ongoing series on the Virgin of Guadalupe joined myth and history with contemporary concerns. Her 1981 painting “Nuestra Madre” shows the deity Coatlique with all the attributes of the Virgin of Guadalupe, fusing the two figures and noting their importance in pre-Columbian and contemporary Mexico, Latin American, and the American Southwest. She depicted the Virgin in different apparitions and has also represented her as the “brown Virgin” or “La morenita.”
Lopez made a series of prints called “Women’s Work is Never Done.” Her depiction of an indigenous woman who voted defied the sexist underpinnings of the phrase “Woman’s work.” In her videos and installations, Lopez dealt with the representation of Chicano culture by mainstream mass media. She produced two films, “Images of Mexican in the Media” and “When You Think of Mexico,” which challenged the way the media depicted Mexicans and Latin Americans.
Lopez taught at U.C. San Diego, Mills College, and Stanford University. She received fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and Ford Foundation. She was to have a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in October 2021. Her work is in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Ulrich Museum of Art, San Francisco’s De Young Museum, the Oakland Museum of Art, and the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture at the Riverside Art Museum in California.