The National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen is a welcome riot of color on a gray, wind-bitten Thursday. The small institution, founded in 1987, buzzes with chatter as a cluster of young children are herded into the main exhibit: “Hanal Pixan Food for the Souls: Dia de los Muertos 2012”. There, the traditions of Mexican culture and contemporary ideas have been brought together–sometimes surprisingly–to honor the cycle of life and death.
Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead”, is a holiday indigenous to Mexico, when families celebrate and remember the lives of deceased loved ones. In the U.S., the festival has become synonymous with smiling skeletons and bright colors, but for Mexican families the two-day period is spiritual, even sacred.
“It’s…very intimate, very personal,” said Alicia Herrera, the Gallery Education Coordinator at the museum. Many of the rituals occur overnight between Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, including visiting the deceased’s grave, cleaning and hanging fresh flowers, and keeping a vigil.
“The human reaction is to have a fear of what will happen when we die,” Herrera said, but “in Mexican culture, its deeply rooted in Mesoamerican history…there was an honoring to the fact that we die…it’s balancing between life and death.”
The exhibit, which runs from now until Dec. 16, is probably the most anticipated, and certainly the most well-attended exhibit each year. In 2011, the museum saw 160,000 visitors, 75,000 of which were for the Day of the Dead exhibit alone.
The main draw are the vibrant ofrendas–altars decorated in honor of deceased loved ones. In Mexican homes, the ofrendas are traditionally covered in tablecloths and adorned with candles, fragrant incense, flowers, lacy colorful paper flags, favorite foods and items representing the person or people the altar honors.
While many of the sensual trappings of home ofrendas–burning candles and incense, fresh food or flowers, even water–have to be rendered in wax or fabric for a three-month long exhibit, the intentions behind the altars are nevertheless visible.
One particular altar is eye-catching not because of its brilliant colors, but its style. Gone is the traditional table, replaced by a handmade quilt that hangs from the wall. Black and white photographs on the quilt squares are interspersed with embroidered skulls, flowers, and other details. At its foot sit baskets of wax bread and embroidered pillows, on a bed of bright yellow and orange silk flowers. One of the pillows reads, in green thread, “El Stitch y Bitch”, the name of the group of textile artists who came together to create this unique installation for the exhibit.
“It was a great experience,” said Kristina Roque, one of the members who worked on the quilt, in a phone interview. “It was nice…to see everyone’s squares put together and see everyone else’s stories in the quilt.”
Roque worked on a square dedicated to her grandmother, who died in 2003, but taught all of her grandchildren how to embroider first. She tried to imitate her grandmother’s style, and incorporated small items from her life, like antique buttons. While she worked on it, she said, she told stories about her grandmother and in turn heard family recollections about her grandmother and her skill with a needle.
“She never called it art,” Roque recalled. “But she was definitely an artist.”
Rachel Wallis also worked on the quilt, embroidering details and helping assemble the final product. Though Day of the Dead is not a tradition in her family, she was moved by her friends’ dedication to the project.
“It’s about reconnecting…and celebrating the parts of their lives that they enjoyed,” Wallis said of the experience during a phone interview. “It’s [the quilt] not traditional…but there’s so much love that went into it and all the people who made parts of it….so in that way I think this is…very fitting.”
Other installations both embrace and challenge the traditional images of Day of the Dead.
Amidst all the color, a plain, black altar sits in a corner. It is styled like a window, with animals–a cow, a rabbit, a duck, a turtle–peering through at the visitor. The animals are so arresting that it takes a moment to notice the blood dripping from the window. In scrolling white script above the picture are the words “Consumes mi dolor…mi muerte.” You consume my pain. My death.
The installation, by artist Alma Dominguez, is meant to be an altar dedicated to the exploitation of animals killed for human consumption. And it generated a bit of a stir when the exhibit first opened.
“I think some people were taken aback,” by the installation, said Cesareo Moreno, head curator of the museum, in a phone interview. He noted that the people who were most surprised by Dominguez’s altar were those who came regularly to the annual exhibit, and who likely had family ofrendas back at home. While animals are important to Mexican families, he explained, they are not traditionally a part of Day of the Dead rituals.
“I think if it had been a painting, it might have made it easier to understand,” Moreno said. “They [visitors] don’t always stop and think ‘this is the artist’s perspective on a cause’ and so are a bit surprised.”
Dominguez could not be reached for comment.
Dominguez’s altar is thought-provoking, but hers is not the only contribution that asks visitors to think about an issue. A pair of acrylic paintings by Los Angeles artist David Botello at first look like traditional Day of the Dead scenes: a man and a woman, their faces painted like skulls, and dressed in traditional Mexican garb cover a colorful, textured canvas.
But in the background politicians, tanks, guns and a woman in red about to be mowed down by a tractor share space with depictions of the Christian cross, a Muslim mosque, and the Jewish Star of David, a question mark dangling from one of its points.
“I…want people to see it,” Botello, speaking via phone from his Los Angeles home, said of both the paintings and their sober details. He wants to question pointless war and violence, he said, as well as bring awareness to the negative impact of religious fundamentalism in the world.
“It’s up to us as human beings to go up against the warlords,” Botello added, referring to the human characteristics of the paintings’ man and woman, which were modeled after a photograph of himself and his wife. He references the painting of the woman: “She…represents Mother Nature…rising up against…the people who want to make war. She’s going to bury them in flowers.”
Indeed, the green tanks and talking politicians are wading in a field of blossoms.
Day of the Dead traditionally is meant to celebrate life. Though they are not traditional in their approach, these artists maintain that core of this Mexican holy day. For some, like Dominguez and Botello, it is an opportunity to highlight social struggle, and invite viewers to engage in a discussion about it. For others, like Wallis, Roque and the other textile artists of El Stitch y Bitch, taking these liberties are about honoring the lives of friends and family in a fun, meaningful way.
But for all, the installations at the Day of the Dead exhibit embody on crucial similarity: they are faithful not just to who they honor, but also the artists themselves.
Roque says it succinctly when describing her quilted tribute to her grandmother:
“We made it [Day of the Dead] our own.”