The reception of the Oakland Museum of California’s 21st annual Dias De Los Muertos exhibition was anything but somber. Bright orange marigolds lined the museum’s stairs and the fragrant smell of incense permeated the air as an acoustic guitar filled the patio. A huge crowd of people gathered around the museum’s entrance and participated in a community prayer ritual.
Warm and colorful, the exhibition, named “Rituals + Remembrance,” is rooted in a Mexican tradition — Dias De Los Muertos, otherwise known as Days of the Dead. Yet the exhibition draws from a gamut of different faiths, which is revealed in cultural symbols that range from the cross to the mandala.
“There’s a lot of things that tell us we’re different. But not a whole lot of things out there tell us (about) our commonalities,” exhibition curator Evelyn Orantes said. “The (inspirations) for the exhibition (were) the universal theme of remembrance and the human impulse to want to remember loved ones who have passed away.”
During the last two anniversaries of the exhibition, the OMCA selected artists from a wider array of backgrounds in comparison to its past exhibition anniversaries. This year, the museum included artists from Latin American, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese and other backgrounds. While drawing from localized histories and traditions, all the artists meditate upon universal questions of death and memory.
“We’re in a country where all these traditions and expressions intersect,” Orantes noted. “Instead of (asking) how to keep them separate, (we should ask) how do we bring them all together and bridge that dialogue?”
The installations range from individual pieces such as Lilli Lanier’s homage to her well-loved grandmother, Ruth Asawa, to collections such as the shadow boxes of Maternal Access and Linkages for Desired Reproductive Health, or MADRE (), which were created by mothers who had lost a child during pregnancy or birth.
Local artist and educator Bryan Keith Thomas contributed one of the most visually striking pieces titled “I’ll Fly Away.” Extravagant black feathers sit atop faded images, dozens of heirloom bags hanging from the pictures. The bags are full of seeds, prayer cloths, hair, money and crystals among other things. Below the faded images hang dated church fans with faint pictures and texts. Referencing Albert E. Brumley’s famous gospel song, the installation is an altar dedicated to Thomas’ Southern roots.
“Rituals + Remembrance” also emphasizes contemporary voices and how younger generations undertake the great responsibility of deriving meaning from past losses.
“There’s this nostalgia and want to preserve, because that’s what makes it a tradition. At the same time every generation wants to own it for themselves,” Orantes said.
For example, activist artists Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza contemplate issues that are kept silent even after death. The work concerns queer family members who felt obligated to keep their sexuality hidden from their family and the public. Four wooden pieces, wedged between circular mirrors, hang from the ceiling — three of them depicting family members. The final piece is comprised of an empty face, gesturing, perhaps, toward an incomplete reality marked by emotional hiding. On the floor sits an arrangement of rainbow tiles, which allude to the prevalent LGBT symbol. In death, those depicted are safe, no longer needing to hide.
Yvonne Escalante’s music box also reflects upon family — namely, her Salvadoran father and German-American maternal grandfather. Her piece “Keeping Time,” is a musical box that makes haunting, bell-like sounds when the teeth of a chime block tap on the kernels of a rotating glass corn cob. Escalante bridges her family’s differences by considering the importance of farming on both sides, as well as the ubiquitousness of agriculture.
Full of heart, “Rituals + Remembrance” creates an intimate, inclusive space for both honoring the deceased and healing the living. It embraces the idea of community and shares with current generations lessons of love and tradition through memory that is produced by art.
“Rituals + Remembrance” will be on display at the Oakland Museum of California until Jan. 3.
Stacey Nguyen covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].