Friday, August 04, 2006

The last supper, the sacred femine, Opus Dei and liberty of expression in Colombia


Last year, Colombian monthly magazine SoHo drew particular ire from certain conservative and religious segments of the population for a series of nude photos of actress Alejandra Azcarte.

What some found offensive was not necessarily the nude photographs but their context (SoHo, a high-class Maxim-like glossy magazine, draws contributions from some of the best Colombian writers and journalists but is also known for its 'classy' or 'artsy' nude spreads featuring some of Colombia's best known actresses and models).

The images, which depicted recreations of Biblical passages such as the last supper and the crucifixion with the nude actress taking the role of Christ, were accompanied by a sarcastic and blistering essay by polemic gay writer Fernando Vallejo on President Alvaro Uribe and his government's ties to organized religion, including the Colombian arm of the right-wing Catholic group Opus Dei. Vallejo, who has made a career out of attacking religious institutions and the Colombian government, is perhaps best known in the United States as the author of "La Virgen de los Sicarios" (on which Barbet Shroder's film "Our Lady of the Assassins" was based).

For a photo spread that was bound to generate controversy, the photos weren't necessarily the epitome of artistic expression, although they weren't necessarily pornographic either. What struck me initially was seeing former Vice-Minister of Justice
Maria Margarita "La Paca" Zuleta and long-time gay-rights activist Manuel Velandia posing as apostles in the set-up for the last supper, along with other political figures (ironically Zuleta resigned from her Uribe government post under then Minister of Justice Fernando Londoño, known for his affiliation with the Opus Dei, partly in protest of his successful efforts to sink a same-sex partnership bill introduced by Senator Piedad Cordoba in 2003).

I thought the storm of indignation would pass but today I found out that it has only escalated into a major challenge to freedom of expression in Colombia:

The International Freedom of Expression (IFEX), an international organization based in Canada which monitors the world for attacks on freedom of expression, sent out an alert yesterday that summarizes how the SoHo essay and images have now been challenged in court for insult, defamation and "injuries or insults to persons or things that are the object of worship" and why there's reason to worry should a court deem that the magazine is guilty as charged.

Quoting the Colombian Foundation for Liberty of Press (FLIP), IFEX states:
FLIP is concerned not only about the immediate case at hand, but is worried also - and especially - about the broader absence of an appropriate analysis of the right of freedom of expression, its possible limits, and the context in which it is exercised. Within a constitutional framework that consecrates and protects freedom of expression, the resort to legal action in the case of "Soho" magazine seems, by all measures, to be disproportionate. In the event that the complainants are successful in their action, this will have an inhibiting or chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression, equivalent to the exercise of censorship. FLIP is also especially concerned about the invocation, in this case, of the crime of "injuries or insults to persons or things that are the object of worship" in order to place limits on freedom of expression. The published material in no way approximates religious insult, much less hate speech. The article and the photographs do not come anywhere near fitting into these categories
For their part, SoHo magazine, which had originally published an apology last year when it found itself under fire from the right-wing, has now launched a section on their website calling for freedom of expression which includes links to prominent editorials and commentary elswehere defending the magazine.

I find it difficult to believe that a Colombian court would rule in favor of such a frivolous case but we'll keep an eye on a decision once it comes.


Anonymous said...

These pictures look pretty lame to me. I pray that the artist has more creativity in the future (laughter). BTW, Opus Dei is not "right-wing" but apolitical. It helps people to find "the circumstances of everyday life are occasions for growing closer to God, for serving others, and for improving society." That's cool.

El Güero said...


Let us know how it turns out, and thanks for the link to SoHo.

Anonymous said...

"Opus Dei is not 'right-wing' but apolitical" How in the world can an organization be "apolitical"? Politics involves everything even relationships between men and women, which I think is the point of the art.

Anonymous said...

I am involved with Opus Dei and I do guffaw at all the hype about this laiety group... It is true that Opus Dei itself is "apolitical" in the sense that it's mission is to help people in the "real world" draw closer to God by viewing their work as an offering to God -- in other words to integrate one's religion into our work. It changes that way you look at your time here on Earth... Opus Dei as a corpus does NOT have any political views but does indeed follow Catholic teachings. Individuals are free to make their own choices -- outsiders often find this quite confusing. Anyway, I think Opus Dei is amazing -- it's certainly helped me as an artist focus on creating better work since I view it as an offering to God. If you read El Camino (or "The Way") you will find that St. Josemaria (founder of Opus Dei) really likes artists and wants them to have an important role in society. Certainly the sort of work (see above images) could hardly be considered in the same league as the great catherals or midieval manuscripts -- rather they appear to be quite a lower spiritual rank. Aim high -- take your work to heart!

-San Francisco, CA

Seamus Breathnach said...

With Jesu-esses like this, who wouldn't like to get 'involved' with doing God's work?

Seamus Breathnach