This weekend, I went to see the Day of the Dead exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican art. This is one of my favorite museums in Chicago. Some of you may know that I have a significant interest in Latin American art and this museum does a great job showcasing Mexican and Mexican American art. It has really neat exhibitions, like discussing Afro-Mexican identity, Latin American female artists and Frida Kahlo, and more. Sadly, it had been too many years since I last went to the museum.
When a friend of mine reminded me about the exhibition for Día de los Muertos, I decided that I had to go. It was well worth the trip. The exhibition achieves two ends: educate the public about the varied traditions of Día de Los Muertos and showcase beautiful and meaningful altars and art about the deceased. I think the pieces were quite thoughtful and artistically interesting.
There were several altar pieces set up throughout the rooms. In the first room, one of them is luxuriously laid out with food, specifically a lot of pan de muerte. I think the artist was Reyna Rayón Salinas. It’s what I always imagine when I think of an altar for Dia de los Muertos. Pan de muerte is actually new to me; I only heard about it for the first time last year. It’s a sweet special bread for Dia de los Muertos where it is left as offering and eaten by the living. It can be covered in wonderfully colorful sugars and shaped in various forms, like people. There are different meanings ascribed to it; one suggests that the bread represents the deceased as a way to reconnect with the dead. It’s a sweet celebration of life and death.
Another altarpiece was this incredible triptych like altar by Ester Hernández for their father. For that, I am sorry. But this piece was an homage to farm workers, specifically looking at the toll of pesticides. The altar changes depending on your view. From the left, it looks like a farm worker with a handkerchief over his face to protect him (ineffectually unfortunately) from the pesticide. If you stare a the alter head on, it becomes the famous appropriation of the Sun Maid woman into a skeleton. And finally if you look from the right, it becomes a skeleton farm worker. Absolutely stunning.
There was a wonderfully creepy altar that showed several old black and white photos (think Victorian, early 20th century) where the faces turn into skeletons. On the floor in front of them, there was a tiny coffin with a bejeweled skull. Next to the wall was a display case with other bejeweled skulls. It was really unnerving. I adored it.
In addition to the altar pieces, there were beautiful photos and paintings throughout the galleries. There was a wonderful display case of giant sugar skulls. One had delicate butterflies all over it. I learned that sugar skull head manufacture goes back generations in many families. Some even start as early as April in making the mixture. Fascinating!
There were also some amazing sculptures of skeletons or Death riding various animals. I loved seeing a skeleton ride a grasshopper or a vulture. I rather dug it. There were also some startling photos taken of young children playing (and living) in a graveyard. This cemetery has alcoves built on top of each other; the kids are on top of alcoves playing with the bones they found. Bone chilling.
One of the most striking pieces was this photography/oral history project by Alejandra Regalado where female immigrants were interviewed about objects they brought over to the US. There were a series of photos of the women themselves and their object. Very much in the spirit of the live literary event “That Belongs in a Museum.” Women talked about the importance of crucifixes, photos, and reading glasses. I can’t wait to see more from this particular project.
I believe the exhibition is up until mid-December so go check it out. It’s well worth it! Find out more here: http://www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org/exhibits/rito-y-recuerdo-day-dead