Chicana activist-artist Yolanda López’s 1978 Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the most daring self-portraits ever painted, and also one of the most poignant. Framed within a traditional Marian mandorla, López depicts herself running straight toward us. A star-spangled blue mantle billows like a superhero cape behind her and a hot-pink floral dress clings to her frame. Disheveled hair, muscular thighs, and bright white sneakers complete her sporty look. Even more striking is López’s confident expression: eyes forward, she grins jubilantly as she strangles a snake with her hand and tramples an angel under her feet. The work is iconoclastic, but also reverent: “Because I feel living, breathing women also deserve the respect and love lavished on Guadalupe,” López once said, “I have chosen to transform this image.”
Sadly, López passed away from liver cancer complications last September at the age of seventy-eight. Her death came just six weeks before the opening of her first-ever museum retrospective, curated by Jill Dawsey at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Though not planned as a memorial, the show paid a fitting tribute to López’s prolific legacy, showcasing her experiments with artistic form and her deep-seated commitment to social justice. It also proved that López is a first-rate artist, one whose life and work deserve to be more widely known.