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Day of the Dead

Sixteenth Annual Day of the Dead Exhibit

October - November, 2002
Text by Ruth Olivera and Guillermo Náñez Falcón
Assembled by Bruno Lossi; photographs by Leandro Dossantos.

The festive celebration in Mexico on the Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, on November 2, is a time for poking fun at death, for laughing at death, and treating it on the most friendly and intimate of terms. The spirits of departed loved ones are thought to return on that day, and to welcome them altars are prepared with offerings of food and drink, while graves are decorated with flowers, candles, and sweets. The dead will partake of these gifts and the living consume them afterwards. This bravado attitude toward death is an expression of the combined heritage of pre-Columbian ancestors and the medieval Spanish Catholic Church. For both, death was an integral part of life and religion and an icon in art, something not to be feared by the Aztec, but a constant reminder of human frailty by the Church. The two Church holy days of All Saints' day on the 1st of November and All Souls' day on the 2nd of November, which were brought over to the New World, blended easily with the already-present Aztec fascination with death.

In anticipation of the holiday, images of death appear everywhere. Death leers invitingly from candy shops in the form of sugar skulls and from bakery windows where special breads for the dead in animal or human form are displayed. In the markets every imaginable representation of death is sold--little coffins from which skeletons jump out--funeral processions with priests carrying coffins, their heads of chickpeas and their bodies and hats of shiny colored paper; cut paper banners called papeles picados, and miniature figurines or calacas that depict the afterlife in myriad activities of daily life. Many examples are shown in the exhibit. Most of this folk art is created by anonymous artisans, but a few individual artists are well known. Most renowned is José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), famous for his calavera posters of skull images among his other graphics. In the cities of central and south Mexico the 19th-century Day of the Dead tradition still continues with the distribution of printed, satirical verses called calaveras. Derived from the word meaning "skull," or "dead one" in slang, they mock prominent persons or institutions, sparing no one. Posada's illustrations for calaveras breathed life into death as the skeletons poke grim fun at the vanity of life.

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