Bringing Day of the Dead to Life

This will be the last year the Oakland Museum of California will host the annual art exhibit for Dia de los Muertos, and it's going out with a bang.

According to Mexican legend, as the clock strikes midnight on November 1st every year, the pearly gates of heaven open up and the souls of the dead are reunited with their families once more. The traditional celebration that results is “Dia de los Muertos,” or “Day of the Dead” — a holiday to honor ancestors through culturally rich customs and rituals. Though the day unarguably centers on death, its ethos is deeply embedded with joyous remembrance.

In observance of the Mexican holiday, the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St.) is once again hosting its annual Dia de los Muertos exhibit (through January 3) and festival (October 25). This year’s festival will feature live performances of contemporary pop and Mariachi music, as well as Aztec, ballet, and folkloric dance. In addition, an artisanal mercado, or market, will be set up in the gift shop, while food trucks will be serving festive cuisine. The public event will take place from 1–4 p.m., with commemorative programs scheduled throughout the day.

After 21 years, this will be the last time the museum hosts the art event on an annual basis. Beginning in 2016, the gallery portion of OMCA’s Dia de los Muertos events will shift to a biennial presentation. But curator Evelyn Orantes ensures that this year’s exhibit will be remembered long enough to fill that gap year.

For Orantes, the goal of this year’s exhibit is twofold: honor the holiday’s culturally specific roots, while guaranteeing that the exhibit is an inclusive community affair. Titled Rituals + Remembrance, the exhibit attempts to straddle the line between cultural specificity and inclusiveness with the theme “memorial across cultures.” Using the holiday as a platform, Orantes asked artists with a range of cultural backgrounds to represent the ways in which death, life, remembrance, and healing are viewed and interpreted by their respective communities.

Installations that draw from the accouterments of traditional Mexican ofrendas, or altars, include candles, colorfully painted skulls, marigold flowers, photographs, and personal items. Though these types of ofrendas are present in the show, most of the installations are unique riffs that draw from each artist’s own history and experience. Highlights include Charles Valoroso’s ofrenda, which is a reflection of his Filipino and Hawaiian heritage and is made with Kapa cloth, tile, wood, shells, mango seeds, and ceramic tiles. Titled “Prayer,” the installation honors the duality of the artist’s cultural experience and what he calls his “hybrid” upbringing.

Meanwhile, Safety First’s installation, titled “Street Offering,” plays on the similarities between traditional ofrendas and memorials that are often seen on sidewalks. These makeshift shrines usually mark the spot where a person died, most often under tragic circumstances. The installation incorporates two portraits of men who were friends of the artist and uses canvas, wood, glass, and bright acrylic paints in colors evocative of graffiti. “R.I.P” is written in repetition along the base and sides of the altar, while rusted spray-paint cans and worn Converse sneakers adorn the top. According to the artist, the piece serves as a reminder that sometimes, “the place of death holds a stronger spiritual connection with the deceased than the final resting place of the body.”

While most of the pieces in Rituals + Remembrance celebrate the long lives of the artist’s ancestors, some are somber dedications to people who passed well before their time. In the piece Nuestros Angelitos (Our Little Angels), about thirty three-dimensional boxes — called “shadow boxes” or nichos — hang on a dark purple wall, holding mementos that represent babies who died either before or shortly after birth. The mothers who made the nichos chose sonograms, small shoes, never-worn onesies, and knitted caps to honor their lost children.

Rituals + Remembrance is rich with generational stories that speak to universal aspects of life. By blending Mexican tradition with those of other cultures, Orantes and the artists have created a cohesive exhibition that reminds viewers that, like in Oakland, different communities can come together in harmonious ways. And though the exhibit may not be returning next year, the annual festival will continue to be a place where people can come together to ensure that these stories are shared and celebrated.

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