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Fort Wayne artists offer original take on the Day of the Dead tradition

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Through November 28th, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art is offering an exhibit that celebrates the Mexican Day of the Dead, a tradition which honors deceased loved ones and ancestors. During the Day of the Dead (November 1st and 2nd), the living invite their dead to join them in a festival of communion. In tribute of their love for the deceased, people create altars filled with photos, mementos, flowers and food offerings.

The exhibition features four altars created by area artists, as well as Mexican folk art from the private collection of Geoff Gephart, executive director of Arts United.

Originally, the Day of the Dead came from a mingling of Native American traditions and Christian traditions brought over to South and Central America by Catholic missionaries after the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. The Day of the Dead took place at roughly the same time of year as All Saints Day, and both holidays honored the lives of loved ones who had died.

Probably the most recognizable images in the Day of the Dead tradition are the calaveras, skeletons rendered often in fancy dress, wearing hats or riding on horses.

The calaveras are associated with Jose Posada, a Mexican newspaper illustrator who died impoverished in Mexico City in 1913. Posada didn’t “invent” these figures — they’ve been part of Mexican folklore for a long time — but many credit the artist with popularizing the imagery.

If you think you can see a hint of mockery in all those grinning skeletons dressed in their finery, you’re not imagining it. They really are laughing at you. Posada’s skeletons were satires of the people in power during his time. “It’s a mockery of those people,” says Paige Sharp, Curator of Education at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. “No matter how much they think they’re better than others, everyone dies in the end, so we’re all equal.”

The most important element is the altars, and the Day of the Dead exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art features four altars created for the event by area artists. The altars were selected from proposals submitted to the FWMA and juried on their originality and creativity.

Palermo Gallindo, who works for the Office of Multicultural Services at IPFW, organized and coordinated an altar by the Hispanos Unidos student group at the university. Their altar honors people who have died in the harsh environment of the desert or been abandoned or killed by traffickers while trying to cross the border to the U.S. Gallindo explains that they’re trying to put a human face on this issue. “The reason we’re trying to honor them is that they’re people, they’re not just illegal or undocumented immigrants that you always see on the news and in the papers,” he says. “They had dreams, they had goals. They were probably trying to reunite with other family members. We want to present a more humane perspective.”

Like all Day of the Dead altars, this one is festooned with plenty of sugar skulls, representing the person who has died. “In Mexico they’re traditionally decorated, and usually have a name label on the forehead,” Gallindo says. “But there’s too many names to put on those little sugar skulls, so they’re not decorated. They’re just white.” The altar also features postcards of rural Mexico, contrasted with postcards of glitzy U.S. cities in the Southwest like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Another altar by Robbin Melton, a jewelry artist and staff writer for Frost, commemorates dead African slaves. It’s decorated with items used by practitioners of Hoodoo — animal bones, statues, candles, herbs, fruits, holy water, and a sequined flag. Melton explains that Hoodoo is a form of what we know as voodoo, practiced in New Orleans and Southern states.

Just as the Mexican Day of the Dead melded Catholic and Native American traditions, Melton says that Hoodoo incorporates Catholicism with African religions. “I wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes people might have about non-Christian religions, especially with hoodoo and voodoo,” Melton explains. “A lot of people assume it’s devil worship, or it’s evil, but it’s not. It’s steeped in Catholic traditions. The slaves adapted certain Catholic practices, and it was also a way for the Africans to hold on to their own religious beliefs without being discovered.”

An altar from the Center for Nonviolence honors women who have died as a result of domestic abuse. The altar was a collaboration by many women at the center. “I like the energy these women have put in this project,” says Ana Giusti, who works at the Center for Nonviolence and managed the project. “They made the flowers and decorations with their own hands, and there’s a doll wearing clothes donated by people who have been victims of domestic violence. That’s part of what makes the altar so powerful and so real.”

Giusti says one of the most compelling items on the altar is a poem that illustrates the trap many women fall into with domestic violence. In the poem, an anonymous voice talks about being abused, but forgives the abuser because the next day he brings her flowers. “This goes on and goes on,” says Giusti. “The violence escalates, and by the end, you realize he’s sending the flowers to the grave. It’s so powerful.”

Finally, Curt Bailey offers an altar dedicated to what he describes as his take on the war in Iraq. Bailey says it incorporates some multimedia and interactive elements. “I use whatever is appropriate to me to put into the work,” he says. “I often use found objects, like things from the newspaper, and incorporate all these different things.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Day of Dead tradition overall is how unremarkable the idea of welcoming back the deceased for one night seems, especially from the perspective of a culture that treats death with hushed reverence or outright fear. “The tradition is not morbid. It’s a celebration of life and a continuation of life,” says Paige Sharp. “They don’t believe that when you die, you’re gone. They believe that you’re going on to a new level of existence. Death is nothing to be feared, but respected.”

Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos
Upstairs gallery
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
October 2 – November 28, 2004
Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm, Sunday 12noon – 5pm, and the second Thursday of the month until 8pm. Admission is free for FWMA members and $5 for adults, $3 for students and $10 for families.

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