Feature image: “Death as an adviser”, 2007 by Gabriela Malinalxochitl Zapata (California) | Photography by Jacinto Ariza and Maria Campos-Vera

It is possible that “Día de Muertos XXV was the most uplifting exhibit I have ever visited. It may seem that death, such an obscure and complex topic in art curricula, is not the most uplifting subject matter for an art exhibit. However, at The National Museum of Mexican Art and its signature annual exhibit “Day of the Dead”, we see death through a different lens. “Día de Muertos XXV” opened its doors Saturday September 9th and left us all more alive than ever.

As a native Spaniard one might assume that my beliefs and traditions around death are similar to the Mexicans’. The Mexican tradition originated when my ancestors arrived in Mexico. The interaction between cultures initiated what resulted in a wonderful fusion between Spanish Catholic and indigenous ancient Mexican traditions that lead to Día de los Muertos among other traditions. All I did back in Spain on November 2nd (All Souls’ Day) was visit the cemetery and bring a bouquet of flowers to honor our deceased.  There was not much celebration.  I barely knew the people who I went to “visit” so I felt little attachment to this annual tradition.

My grandmother was an amazing person who raised me for most of my childhood.  It was not until she passed away that my idea of death and All Souls’ Day was put into perspective. It was now not just another death; it was my grandmother who was not here anymore. No more laughs together, no more fighting over what TV shows to watch.  That was it.

Talking to Norma Celedon at the opening of the exhibit provided a perfect window into the Dia de los Muertos celebration from a Mexican-American perspective. Norma’s brilliant and caring partner, Alicia Amador, passed away a few months ago. All of the sudden Norma, still at a young age, was left without the love of her life. I asked Norma about death and she said “death is just an extension of life, those whom we loved and passed away are always among us”. All of the sudden, it hit me. For Mexicans death is neither an end nor a goodbye, but a transition into something…why not, even better; a “see you soon” in another dimension. The way her eyes were shining when talking about Alicia made me realize how powerful love is; we should give it and receive it as much as we can here but also when we are in that place somewhere else.

Everything about Norma’s ofrenda at the exhibit was an ode to Alicia, including references to her family and her role as a community activist advocating for children’s and women’s rights or for the Mexican community in Chicago. The ofrenda even captured her simple pleasures including the music to which she used to listen. Pointing at a drawer in the ofrenda full of holiday-themed socks, I asked Norma what that was. She said “Alicia used to wear these every holiday – the tackier the socks the better”. How is that possible that in a span of two minutes I knew so much about this wonderful woman Alicia? And then I realized what this Mexican tradition was all about: love, yearning, and, above all, the celebration of the little things that make us all unique and that the people we leave behind will remember and treasure forever.

Once again, Cesáreo Moreno, Visual Arts Director and Curator for the National Museum of Mexican Art, has outdone himself. From the layout of the exhibit, to the colorful walls, to the selection of the artists and pieces, this year’s exhibit was better than ever. Upon stepping into these galleries you feel immersed in the tradition and find, in every single artwork or label, a key piece of this exhibit’s magnificently told story.

Cesáreo Moreno provided a blend of traditional and new twists throughout the galleries.  Familiar sights at the exhibit are La Catrina, the skulls (transformed into delicious sugar treats), the marigold flowers (or cempasúchil), the altars, the candles, the pan de muerto and the colorful papel picado. Surprises included a video-installation-ofrenda (ofrenda to Aurora E. Orozco) hanging from the gallery’s ceiling and a massive fluorescent acrylic mural by artist Hector Duarte called “The Life and Death of the Eight-Hours Day”(Hector Duarte was one of the two artists who installed the first “Day of the Dead” exhibit at NMMA in 1986). Rounding out the displays we find etching, ceramic, mixed media, photography, and cartonería.

It is not only the exquisite artistic quality of the exhibit that deserves mention, but also the thoughtful process in which the items were curated. Talking to Noosh Salvador, daughter of Álvaro Salvador Fuentes (subject of one of the most beautiful ofrendas at the exhibit), I learned that it was the museum which approached her family and wanted Álvaro to be honored in the exhibit. Álvaro was very committed to his community.  He was the President of the Mexican Civic Society and one of the founders of the Chicago Mexican Day Parade. Because of his grandeur the museum wanted to recognize his legacy.  This speaks volumes about the care and effort put into the exhibit. When I asked Noosh how this process has impacted her she said “it has helped me heal and celebrate his life. I always wanted my father to be proud of me, but through this process I realized how proud I was of him”.

Artists from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico have come to the Pilsen neighborhood to contribute to this exhibit. One of them is Blanca Estela Tinoco, who works at the Museo de Artes y Oficios in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán and came to Chicago for the opening. Blanca works to preserve and disseminate traditions like El Día de los Muertos, and has a wealth of knowledge about the topic. I discovered that the food prepared for the ofrendas (which invite the souls to come home and feel comfortable during their stay) in the past used to be dependent on the current harvest and what was available locally to offer to the returning dead.  Today many ofrendas feature the deceased’s favorite meals. She also explained which ingredients to use for the delicious pozole and churipo that you may see in many ofrendas. “Día de Muertos XXV” is a visual treat but also a great excuse to learn about Mexico’s rich history and culture.

Día de Muertos XXV” will run through December 11. Included in the programming are many activities for everyone in the family: art classes for the little ones, a community night in which you can honor those who passed away, and many art demonstrations. Even if you don’t normally appreciate art, you should go to see this exhibit. You will take something good out of it. For me it was the sweet memory of my grandma and I watching telenovelas during la sobremesa drinking café con leche.  What memories might you recall? Go to find out and, along the way, wish “Día de Muertos XXV” a happy twenty-fifth anniversary.

The National Museum of Mexican Art is located at 1852 W 19th st, Chicago. For more information about this exhibit or the NMMA visit: www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org

See slideshow of National Museum of Mexican Art: Día de Muertos XXV on Flickr »

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