But the inclusion in a parallel art exhibition of a controversial image of Our Lady by Mexican artist Alma Lopez, which depicts Mary wearing a floral bikini, has drawn the wrath of a bishop, a TD and a former MEP.
It has also prompted a wave of online opposition from various conservative religious groups, including the bizarrely named America Needs Fatima, who urged people to bombard UCC with objections.
Lopez’s digital version of the Virgin of Guadalupe will go on public display in UCC today as part of her Our Lady and Other Queer Santas exhibition which runs alongside the conference, organised by UCC’s Centre for Mexican Studies.
In a statement issued yesterday, Bishop of Cork and Ross, Most Reverend Dr John Buckley, said: “It is regrettable and unacceptable that this exhibition seeks to portray the Mother of God in such an offensive way.”
Fine Gael Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer also issued a statement saying it is not acceptable for any person or artist to denigrate another’s beliefs or to use art as a catch-all excuse for bigotry, prejudice or blasphemy.
“Universities should be a place of acceptance and tolerance of all beliefs and opinions,” he said.
“If UCC considers itself an inclusive place for study and research then it must ensure that all beliefs are respected.
“It should not permit any one set of beliefs to be ridiculed.”
He said UCC should be at the forefront of promoting religious tolerance in a pluralist society.
“They should not be lending their support to an event which is considered by many to be overtly blasphemous and blatantly disrespectful,” he said.
Former Ireland South MEP Kathy Sinnott also condemned the artwork, describing it as a “crude insult”.
She asked college authorities if they would think of offending Muslims with an insulting caricature of the Prophet Mohammed.
“One year ago today, I attended the funeral of the former head of this department, Professor Terence Folley,” she said.
“In the eulogy at the end of Mass, the speaker described an academic who had a deep commitment to UCC, to his students, to the Spanish language and to all aspects of Hispanic culture.
“The eulogist also described Professor Folley’s deep devotion to Our Lady.
“Prof Folley’s first anniversary Mass coincides with this event in his beloved Hispanic Studies Department.”
She urged college bosses to cancel the exhibit in appreciation and respect for Prof Folley’s contribution to the department and university.
UCC president Dr Michael Murphy met with the conference organiser, Professor Nuala Finnegan, the director of the Centre for Mexican Studies, to discuss the controversy yesterday.
There was no official comment from UCC last night and the conference and exhibition are set to proceed.
Ms Lopez, who is on route to the conference, could not be contacted. But she has written about the controversy surrounding this image before.
Her 14in by 17.5in digital print shows Mary wearing a floral bikini, with her hands on her hips in a provocative pose, standing on a moon held by a topless female butterfly angel.
It first went on display in 2001 at an exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico but months before the exhibition opened, it was clear the image was going to create controversy.
Soon after the opening in February, Jose Villegas and Deacon Anthony Trujillo were joined by Archbishop Michael J Sheehan in organising protests and demanding the removal of the print.
“The protests were violent,” Lopez said.
“The museum, the curator, and I endured constant verbal abuse and physical threats.
“The print that the archbishop and the protesters found so offensive is only an image of a 40-year-old woman with her belly and legs exposed, standing on a black crescent moon held by a bare breasted female butterfly angel.
“This small print was on exhibition in a museum, not a church.
“After my initial shock to the reaction to Our Lady, I realised that the organisers were primarily men, the Catholic Church, and conservative religious groups who would bus men and women to the protest sites or would ask them to sign postcards or write emails.
“I still cry when I remember receiving an anonymous large yellow envelope containing letters written by small children. It makes me sad that adults teach children to hate and write hate mail.”
She said the “witch hunt continued” when in December 2002, she was invited to exhibit the image in San Antonio, Texas, only to be barred from the exhibition later after pressure from objectors.
During the summer of 2003, a conservative religious group from Pennsylvania travelled to LA to protest about one of her silkscreens, based on Our Lady, titled Our Lady of Controversy.
This image shows the standing female figure wearing boxing gloves — ready to defend her constitutional rights.
Another curator declined to exhibit the original Our Lady after the museum received hate emails, opting instead for a “safe” Guadalupe image that Lopez produced in 1997.
Since the controversy in Santa Fe, Our Lady has been the subject of magazine and journal essays and Lopez has been invited to travel the world to speak about the controversy.
“My visual work and the Our Lady controversy are topics of study in courses that range from women’s studies, queer studies, religious studies, chicano/latino studies, art history studies, museum studies, american studies as well as new media studies,” she said.
“I admit, I was surprised by the violent reaction to Our Lady because I am a community artist, born in Mexico and raised in California, with the Virgin as a constant in my home and my community.
“I know that there is nothing wrong with this image which was inspired by the experiences of many Chicanas and their complex relationship to La Virgen de Guadalupe.
“I am not the first Chicana to reinterpret the image with a feminist perspective, and I’m positive I won’t be the last.”
Lopez is described as one of the most visible and cutting-edge Chicana feminist activist artists working the US today.
After the violent Rodney King riots in LA in 1992, she engaged in public art collaborations with African-American artist Noni Olabisi, to bridge divides between the two communities of African Americans and Chicanas in South Los Angeles.
Their collaborative murals have all been commissioned by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
She painted a series of acrylics in 2004, entitled Corazon/Virgen, which displays the two major emblems of Mexican Catholicism, the Sacred Heart and the Virgin of Guadalupe, within the context of ordinary lives and popular culture, through references to tattoos and graffiti.
Last April, the book Our Lady of Controversy: Alma Lopez’s ‘Irreverent Apparition’, which López co-edited with Dr Alicia Gaspar de Alba, was published by University of Texas Press.
The book brings together prominent feminist scholars to comment on Alma’s art and activism and the way they intervened in New Mexico’s politics of place and religion.