Charise Mericle's 100% Real is one of the works that play off Mexican retablos.
Charise Mericle's 100% Real is one of the works that play off Mexican retablos.
Nicole Frug

Saints, Sacrilege and Retablos

In the 1998 Houston Press Best of Houston issue, entrepreneur Macario Ramirez told how he enjoyed the city's diversity. "I feel the combining of ethnic and racial groups is good for us," he said. "Houston is a wonderful study in the interaction of people."

Last month Ramirez found himself interacting far less amiably. He led the march of several dozen protesters to Redbud Gallery in the Heights, for a demonstration against the opening of the "sextablos" exhibition. They railed on over the X-rated artworks, one of which depicts Christ on the cross -- getting oral sex from a kneeling woman.

Friends say gallery owner Gus Kopriva, who had eagerly anticipated the opening of the 200-exhibit show, was stunned and hurt as the protesters branded him racist. They condemned him as insensitive to the importance and sanctity of symbols dear to Catholic Hispanics.

At the center of the firestorm are the so-called sextablos, a takeoff on the Spanish word retablo, meaning religious icon. Retablos are traditional Mexican paintings of Christ or saints on sheets of tin. Customers buy a retablo of their patron saint and reserve it for a place of honor in their homes. Similar to retablos, there are ex-votos that deal with the delivery of a specific miracle requested through prayer from a particular saint.

Sextablos are made in the retablo style, except that the religious figures and others are depicted in various sexual acts. Many Catholics and Hispanics consider retablos and ex-votos sacred. And perhaps no one feels more strongly about that than Ramirez.

"I've accused [sextablo show participants] of being racist because they have targeted the Latino community," says Ramirez, who has been devoted to cultural preservation for the last 20 years. "What offends me is that they have knowingly taken an icon that we consider very spiritual in our culture, and they are using it to their own end for profit's sake, and to trash and bash the culture. They know what they are doing. They're not doing it against Hanukkah, and they are not doing Little Black Sambo sextablos or Martin Luther King sextablos."

Ramirez operates Casa Ramirez Imports in the Heights, where he sells art and crafts from Mexico and Central America. He also uses his store to educate and improve awareness of Hispanic culture. Ramirez hosts annual shop exhibits of ofrendas -- altars honoring dead loved ones -- during Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations. He teaches students to make ofrendas.

He also has complained about offshoots of the ofrenda tradition shown at galleries such as Lawndale Art Center. Ramirez claims the shows exploit and misrepresent that part of Hispanic culture. But he saves his harshest criticism for sextablos.

He's tried to shut down the Redbud Gallery exhibit by lodging complaints with the Houston Police Department's vice division that the art was pornographic. Vice officers visited Redbud, but so far the sex police have not banned the show. Ramirez recommended to Catholic Monsignor Frank Rossi that Kopriva and his wife be ex-communicated.

Rossi told the Press that while he sympathizes with Ramirez, the diocese prefers not to draw additional attention to the exhibit by commenting on it.

"I want to expose the situation," says Ramirez. "If we don't do anything, they think they can continue bashing the Catholic Church and Christianity and whatever else." He's drawn some support from the Art League's Doris Murdock, who says the sextablos are degrading to Mexican culture. "For a moment, imagine that Dr. Martin Luther King is portrayed on the cross receiving a blow job -- would that be racist? I'll bet you'd have picketing then," Murdock explains.

But local artist Barb Jones, whose sextablo Hoochie Mamma is included in the show, says critics such as Ramirez are off base.

"I understand his feeling on the subject," says Jones, "and that in the Mexican-American community a retablo is a religious item and the focus for prayers and religious meditation. But what I see the show as doing is taking an art form that is recognized by a particular name -- retablo -- and pushing it out of the area of a holy object and into the area of fine art. What I relate it to is, can you imagine Diego Rivera trying to justify one of his murals to some pope who thought that murals were only for the glorification of God?"

Jones says she thinks those with open minds "would understand the hijacking of the name retablo to portray the type materials used to create the art."

Gallery owner Kopriva is still a bit shell-shocked by Ramirez's attack, although he says he still considers him a friend. However, Kopriva points out that the curator of the original sextablo show in Chicago, Michael Hernandez de Luna, is Hispanic. When Kopriva had a chance to bring a national group of artists to his gallery, he says, he jumped at the chance.

"There is some erotic imagery, but this is not a sexually oriented business," says Kopriva. "It's a bona fide art gallery. The next exhibition will be birds. The one before this was ceramic animals. But it's art, and somebody will always get upset about something. But I give him that belief, and I admire him for standing up for his beliefs."

And that's just what Ramirez intends to do. He vows to continue weekend demonstrations at Redbud until the show closes in January.

"I want to keep this pressure up," he says. "Maybe they say they have a First Amendment right to this. But it goes beyond that."


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