Beyond Traditional Customs
By Jamie Solis
Mourning the death of a loved one is typically a sad and difficult time for most; however Día De Los Muertos is a refreshing celebration for the afterlife of the deceased that’s infused with liveliness and positivity. This sacred holiday is celebrated worldwide—though many cultural roots in the holiday stem from Latin American countries, with festivities filled with music, food, dancing and most importantly altars (called ofrendas) that honor friends and relatives that have passed on. Altars are typically adorned with photos of the deceased, flowers and sugar skulls. The offerings of pan dulce, as well as the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages are also common. Incense is burned to help guide the spirits home, while one candle is burned for each individual that has passed. To accompany Riverside’s citywide festival celebrating this meaningful holiday, guest curator Cosmé Cordova presents “Transcending Traditions: Día de Los Muertos | Day of the Dead” at the Riverside Art Museum.
“Transcending Traditions” highlights age-old customs of Día De Los Muertos, while allowing artists the flexibility to interpret what the holiday means to them personally. Made up of artworks beyond the traditional altars that are commonly used for honoring the deceased in Mexican traditions, exhibited cultural centerpieces take on various elaborate and colorful forms. Channeling centuries of Aztecs who have celebrated the remembrance of friends and family members that have passed away, “Transcending Traditions” is comprised of printmaking, ceramics, textiles, drawings and paintings made by artists from Southern California, Arizona and Mexico. While there is an immense amount of diversity within this exhibit, there are undoubtedly recurring themes between unrelated works.
Towering high above your head, a thin and bony skeleton resembling Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect greeter, posted just outside the museum’s entrance. This structure of bones, rocking a grin that spans the width of his face, is riding atop a massive bicycle with a frame made out of bottle caps. The artist responsible for this piece is Martin Sanchez—owner of the restaurant Tio’s Tacos. When he is not being praised for his authentic food, he’s known for creating alternative and large-scale art installations like this one. If you’re assuming this giant skeleton is serving a frightful purpose just in time for Halloween, then you’d be widely misinterpreting its presence. There’s nothing morbid or frightening about Day of the Dead decor—the sugar skull represents deceased loved ones. Often decorated with the name of the deceased on the forehead, these skulls are enhanced with bright colors and whimsical designs like stripes, swirls and dots. Like the bicycle-riding skeleton, every piece in this exhibit fuses traditional idols with modern techniques and interpretations.
Two drawings by Antonio Pelayo expose his conjoined inspiration of honoring the traditional Mexican culture associated with Día De Los Muertos, integrated with a modern representation of the holiday. This could stem from the background of this talented artist, growing up in Mexico before moving to the U.S., where he currently resides. One of his drawings, Flores de Muerte, is of a beautiful Latina woman with sugar skull face makeup. The colorless model is holding a confident and sexy pose while wearing a traditional sombrero on her head. While marigolds are known as the flowers of the dead because they’re believed to help the spirits of the deceased find their homes and altars, the artist has chosen to adorn the hat with pink, red and blue roses instead, which add a meditated splash of color to this work of art.
As Catholicism has a strong presence in the Latino community, it is not surprising that religious idols are used by various artists. One example is in an extremely convincing and lifelike depiction of a woman’s eyes close-up entitled The End by Pelayo. The entrancing eyes convey a spiritual undertone for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the faint cross penciled between her eyes. Beyond that, her wet and fear-struck eyes look as if they are coming face to face with their end. The beautiful yellow, orange and red bursts that resemble fireworks from one right eye that is full of flame while the other eye is mostly white, giving you the idea that she is staring into the eyes of the divine. With her eyes exposing such beauty in their final moments, maybe there is nothing to fear in the end. Another great piece by Carlos Magallanes uses the cross as the focal point, rather than leaving it as an interpretive icon. This commanding, intricate cross with gold detail and a red and black emblem in the center has a strong message of religion as the focal point, rather than leaving this conclusion up to the viewer to interpret.
Whether you find this as an opportunity to connect with a culture that is familiar to you, or a chance to become engulfed in a vibrant celebration that is new and exciting, “Transcending Traditions” will transport you into an understanding that we all have in common—one that values commemorating those no longer with us that have made our life journeys possible.
“Transcending Traditions: Día de Los Muertos | Day of the Dead” at Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111; www.riversideartmuseum.org. Thru Nov. 25. $5.