Following its inaugural last year of the Dia de los Muertos community art show, the Homer Council on the Arts for October has brought back an exhibit inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, traditionally held Nov. 2. The exhibit opened on Oct. 6 and continues through Halloween, Oct. 31.
While Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and the United States has grown as a community fall festival, its roots go back to ancient Aztec and other pre-European contact beliefs. At the quarter point between the equinox and the solstice, some believe, the veil between life and death is lifted. Imagery of Dia de los Muertos includes masks, dioramas and “the elegant woman,” La Calavera Catrina, a decorated skull-like face with cavernous eyes, spider web designs and lips that look like teeth. That iconic image comes from a 20th century illustration by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada.
Posada’s image shows a skull with an elaborate hat. Artist Catie Bursch interprets that as a satire of the wealthy.
“You’re going to die, too, like the rest of us. You can have the fancy dress, but you’re mortal,” she said.
La Calavera Catrina appears in sugar-skull candy, treats given out for the Day of the Dead. Several works on the HCOA show depict the image, such as Cyndie Avery’s painted photo, “Muertos Gothic,” or Luzma Alacaraz’s haunting “Madre.” Alacaraz, born in Michoacan, Mexico, and of the Purepecha people, painted a portrait of her late mother.
“It is important to understand that El Dia de Los Muertos is not a day of sadness, but of laughter, stories and great food,” she writes about her painting.
But Dia de los Muertos wouldn’t be the Day of the Dead without the classic image of death — bones. Lots and lots of bones. Almost every work in the show features skeletal elements. Dia de los Muertos art often shows skeletal people as they would appear in real life, like setnet fisherman Bursch’s diorama of a fisherman in a boat. Bursch’s diorama includes tiny objects like soap and cereal boxes she bought at markets in Mexico. Bursch also did a scratch board sketch, “El pez perdido,” showing her as a skeleton at her fishing camp watching skeleton fishes.
“I think it’s fascinating to think of ourselves, OK, you get one day to go down to earth. You’re still a ghost, but you’re mortal. You can have that cold Coke or eat grandma’s tortillas,” she said in a phone call while vacationing in Saladita, Mexico. Bursch plans to visit San Miguel Allende for Dia de los Muertos festivities next week.
Of her scratch board sketch, Bursch said, “I thought, ‘What would I do if I came back?’ Also, a lot of the things important to us now wouldn’t be important to us then.”
Another Dia de Los Muertos tradition is papel picado, or pecked paper. Artists stack up sheets of paper and then cut into the paper with small chisels, creating numerous works of the same image. Papel picado often gets hung as banners across rooms or plazas. It’s a technique that evokes fancy lace used by Spanish Catholics on altars or the cut paper of Chinese immigrants. Artist Sharlene Cline uses that technique with paper and Xacto knife in “Refugees.”
The central image is of a mother, father and daughter in silhouette based on Navajo artist John Hood’s warning sign for Caltrans, the California transportation department. Hood designed the image that officials put along Interstate 5 in the late 1980s and early 1990s to warn drivers of immigrants crossing the road.
“There were so many people dying on a California highway the state decided to post those signs,” Cline said.
Hood’s image has since become an icon of refugees and the refugee movement. Cline puts a spin on that image by using the papel picado medium and then depicting the refugees as skeletons. The subtext is clear: at borders around the world where people seek refuge from war, poverty and genocide, many die in the passage.
“This ‘caution’ is a remembrance of lives lost crossing the Mexican-U.S. border, as well as a caution on how to proceed forward at the border,” Cline writes in her artist statement.
“It’s a family — just a regular family trying to have a better life,” Cline said of the image. “For us, we’re trying to live our lives day to day. It becomes a political battle. It’s just someone trying to have a better life.”
Comic artist Brian Payne also explores La Calavera Catrina in his four-strip series, “Midnight Agents,” included in his Zinc Comics, No. 2, a 2016 Halloween special. Payne said the Midnight Agents are a group of comic heroes, his version of the Avengers.
Payne used part of his Permanent Fund Dividend to print the series. He gave out the comic last Halloween instead of candy. He’d intended to submit the work to last year’s Dia de Los Muertos show, but didn’t finish it in time and included it in the 2017 show. “Midnight Agents” in the HCOA show is his original pen-and-ink drawing.
The strip tells the story of Midnight Agent Tragic Hero after he sips tea laced with cyanide. Dying — or his he dreaming? —Tragic Hero sees Senora Muerte with her Catrina mask.
“Instead of having the cloven hooved devil, I had the Aztecan queen of the underworld,” Payne said. “She’s known by many names. Senora Muerte is one. The Black Lady is one.”
More playful are two reverse glass paintings by Julianne Tomich, “Morning Brew” and “De la Morte Moose.” “Morning Brew” recreates a mural Tomich painted on a building in Ohio, where she attended college and got her bachelor of fine arts from Ohio State. That one shows a La Calavera Catrina image pouring a cup of coffee from a spinal coffee machine. “De la Morte Moose” is a skeletal moose texting on a smart phone. The reverse glass painting adds layers of paint to the back of glass. Tomich put LED lights behind the glass to make the paintings glow.
“I just wanted to do a day of the dead moose, just fun, whimsical stuff — light hearted for the Day of the Dead,” she said.