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Day of the Dead

Dia de los Muertos and Los Vivos y Los Muertos at Fort Wayne Museum of Art

By Rebecca Stockert

Fort Wayne Reader


For nearly a decade, Fort Wayne Museum of Art has hosted the annual Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, celebration with Mexican altars and a family celebration. This year, the public is encouraged to participate once again on Sunday, October 29, 2-6 pm. To accompany the annual festivities, FWMoA Exhibitions Content Manager, Elizabeth Goings, curated a show featuring Latino artwork from the collection of Dr. Gilberto Cardeñas, professor of Latino studies at the University of Notre Dame, Los Vivos y Los Muertos. The exhibit runs now through December 3, 2017.

The annual Dia de los Muertos family celebration will host altars created by local artists and family members from the community. Altars are made to honor deceased loved ones, famous people, pets, or they represent certain themes. This year, the event will host altars making political statements dealing with issues such as immigration and human trafficking. During the celebration on October 29, children will be able to participate in hands-on activities from 2-4 pm. Music, dancing, traditional folkloric costumed characters, Mexican food, and desserts will be enjoyed from 4-6 pm. Anyone and everyone is invited to attend this celebration and learn more about the festivities and cultural heritage.

Traditionally, Dia de los Muertos is a day celebrated in south and central Mexico to honor deceased loved ones and support their spiritual journey in the afterlife. It is a multi-day celebration. The holiday is a hybrid of the indigenous Mexican festival honoring the Aztec goddess of the underworld and Catholic traditions, coinciding with Días de Los Santos (All Saints Day, November 1) and Día de Los Fieles Difuntos (All Souls Day, November 2). The celebration often includes honoring dead loved ones by creating altars, leaving favorite foods, and calaveras (sugar skulls).

Raquel Aragon Kline, committee member for Dia de los Muertos for six years, says her favorite part of the celebration is the altars: “The altars are created with such love and care by participants. It is always so touching to see how much a person is missed and celebrated on this occasion. It is important to mention Día de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Día de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.”

Kline went onto explain how Dia de los Muertos “was not a cult to death but rather a mixture of cultures and beliefs.” It is a ritual that can help people cope with death and grieving. It creates “a new frame of thought around death” and helps people celebrate those who are no longer with us. Kline explained that the holiday is really a celebration of life. She says “Rather than dressing in all black and mourning the passing of loved ones, Día de Los Muertos becomes a colorful and vibrant national remembrance of the lives of deceased relatives and friends.” It helps us all to realize that death is part of the cycle of life and to enjoy the time we have.

A common sight during the celebration is images of skulls. Goings explained that the imagery comes from Aztec and Mayan traditions, in which the skulls of victims or human sacrifices were displayed. The display of human skulls in ritual and domestic spheres dates back to the ancient times. In the Ancient Near East, people would keep the skulls of loved ones and reconstruct them with clay and shells. These skulls would be kept in the home as an act of ancestor worship.

The skulls of Dia de los Muertos are brightly colored and painted, called calavera. The skulls are representations of the sacrifices or the goddess of the underworld who welcomes the dead. Goings explained “Skulls are brightly colored and represent the vibrancy of life; death is a part of life and this will happen for everyone, but not in a morbid way.”

The exhibit, Los Vivos y Los Muertos, accompanying the Dia de los Muertos event was curated to highlight Latino artists and their depictions of the holiday. The exhibit features lesser known Latino artists from across the nation and Latin America as well as more well known and influential artists such as Ester Hernandez and Chaz Bojórquez.

Hernandez is probably most well known for her famous screen print Sun Mad featuring an image of a skeleton holding grapes looking strikingly similar to the Sun Maid raisin box (this piece is not in the current exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art). Instead of the regular copy on the raisin box, the type reads “Unnaturally grown with insecticides, miticides, herbicides, fungicides.” Hernandez draws attention not to the end customer who ingests these chemicals put on the foods, but rather the agricultural worker who is exposed in the fields of Central and South America, without legal regulation or protection.

The exhibit also totes a piece from Bojórquez, godfather of cholo writing, part of the chicano art and graffiti movement. Bojórquez came of age in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s and began practicing street art before it became the mainstream art form we know today. His letter forms, influenced by the graffiti he grew up around and classic Asian calligraphy he studied at Cal Arts, still echoes in the streets today (and now galleries and museums, where the once underground art form has found a mainstream home).

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.