Dia de Los Muertos, as you may know it, or Day of the Dead, is a beautiful holiday, both literally and philosophically. It celebrates loved ones who’ve been lost and the concept of death as a whole with vibrant color, amazing food, painted faces and beautiful sugar skulls. It’s a time for remembering the dead for the vibrant people they were and traditionally, a time to pray for their souls. Bright orange and yellow marigolds litter the ground and adorn the elaborate, beautifully arranged altars, or ofrendas that accompany the holiday, which is actually made up of 3 separate days of remembrance. October 31st, which we celebrate as Halloween, is a day to remember departed children, the “little angels.” Following that, on November 1st is the Catholic Feast day of All Saints Day, and rounding out these memorial holidays is November 2nd– All Saint’s Day. Ofrendas are built by each family as a representation of the person who was lost and include favorite foods, photos, personal effects and other elements, such as symbols of death itself, like the skeleton, triumphed over with color and life. Day of the Dead: Tilica y flaca es la calaca is an example of this, as roughly translated, it means “Skinny and scrawny is the skeleton.” In this way, Mexican and Hispanic cultures apply humor to death as a way to better cope with it.
This year, we visited the National Museum of Mexican Art for their exhibit based on these sacred days, which are also considered one of our world’s most important living traditions, and designated as a part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This holiday is celebrated far and wide throughout Hispanic culture – from the European Spanish to the ancestral peoples of Mesoamerica. Day of the Dead: Tilica y Flaca es La Calaca takes a look at these traditions- both as they have always been and how they’ve evolved and been adopted in our local area. The exhibit is full of wonderful things to learn with amazing, vibrant art that celebrates the cultural heritage of the holiday, intimate personal details and relevant social commentary.
Day of the Dead: Tilica y flaca es la calaca is immediately visually arresting, with its first focal point being a gorgeous, brightly lit orange ofrenda full of the smiling skulls, beautiful foil designs, hundreds of marigolds and the traditional food offerings. It’s a good way to make your entrance- a large form piece that demands full pause and commandeers an entire wall.
As you move along in Tilica y flaca, you’ll start to see these ideas exploded out of that traditional ofrenda format, both regionally, as explored in another large format work by Faustino De La Cruz (assisted by Fredy Galacio Santiz Martinez) and in a more modern, somber painting by Ricardo Carbajal Moss titled “End of Life” which takes the traditional sunny marigold and reframes it with a somber darkness not usually associated with Day of the Dead.
Another piece of note is Every Step You Take is Forever. This work, by artist Raul Gonzalez III with Elaine Bay, transforms the ofrendas into makeshift rafts, and speaks of and to those who made the journey to other shores in hopes of supporting their loved ones back home – those who made it, and those who didn’t. Bold drawings behind these rafts speak to the oppression and dehumanization of those who make these journeys.
The Day of the Dead is as personal as it is nationally recognized, and as you traverse Tilica it’s impossible not to learn about the individuals being remembered. It’s in the pair of boots at one ofrenda, the coke bottles, the Cubs paraphernalia, the dog-eared photos of times when everyone was together in this life. What’s most beautiful about these traditional ofrendas is the thought and care put into every little piece – hand painted sugar skulls, favorite foods of the deceased, treasured possessions and things that they wore, all meant to show the world who these people were and honor their memories.
One of Day of the Dead: Tilica y flaca es la calaca’s most arresting moments is an ofrenda dedicated to those whose families could not honor them this way. Unnamed, Undocumented, Unidentified, is for the unidentified dead of the Cook County Morgue, and uses artist’s renderings, photographs and lists of personal objects recovered with these bodies, in a traditional style ofrenda. It’s a touching way to honor people whose families have not had the chance, and brings attention to a county website where, it’s hoped, loved ones or friends can help these people regain their names and stories.
Day of the Dead: Tilica y flaca es la calaca brings its viewers intimate knowledge of the meaning of the holiday, exploring the sacred nature and religious aspects as well as bringing visitors in to each individual family and life. It respects tradition while simultaneously reframing it for today, addressing current social issues and maintaining a reverence for the past. It’s a great opportunity for those who may not be familiar with Day of the Dead to learn more about what it means to the people who celebrate it, and how they celebrate it, and a love letter to the people who grew up with it.
Though El Dia de muerto is over for this year, Day of the Dead: Tilica y flaca es la calaca at the National Museum of Mexican Art will be on display through December 10. The National Museum of Mexican Art is located at 1852 W. 19th St and admission is free. Click here for more information on this exhibit and the museum itself.