SOMArts Día de los Muertos exhibit gives life to resistance art

J. Astra Brinkmann/Courtesy

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The SOMArts Cultural Center’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibit opened last Friday with a booming celebration of this year’s theme: “Remembrance and Resistance.”

Despite the quiet solemnity with which one usually confronts remembering deceased loved ones, opening night at the Día de los Muertos exhibit played out more like a fiesta with colorful lighting schemes, live music and the consistent buzz of people talking, laughing and actively engaging with the art pieces before them.

Co-curator René Yañez said this is one of the things he strives for with this annual open call show: to choose pieces that engage the public and to arrange them in a way that takes people through a journey of altars and artwork. Certainly, he’s had some practice — now in his 46th year curating this event, and in these later years joined by his son, Rio.

It’s rather appropriate that a father-son duo curated this Día de los Muertos event, given that both the holiday and the exhibit are such family affairs. Many of the pieces felt intimately personal, such as René Yañez’s own piece titled “My Family,” which features an arrangement of black and white photos of his grandparents and other members of his family tree.

These sorts of pieces, as well as many of the more traditional Día de los Muertos altars dedicated to deceased loved ones, showcased the abilities of both the artists and altars in general to capture something of the essence of a person. Touching on this same idea is Veronica A. Rueda’s piece, “Abuelito y Abuelita Acosta – 2017,” which explores smell and texture, urging viewers to reflect on how a distinctive aroma can remind them of their grandparents.

This active engagement with the audience was not uncommon in pieces throughout the exhibit, and it was one of the principle components of René Yañez’s vision of a fun and interactive show. This focus was evident through many of the larger pieces that felt like small rooms and incorporated chairs or cushions for people to come in, sit down and chat. Some of the works ask viewers to contribute ideas, sparking a written and verbal dialogue, or actually create their own piece of art.

Susana Aragón R’s piece, for example, is titled “Pockets of Memory: What inspires you to resist?” Her interactive piece includes fabric pockets that people can decorate with feathers, beads and markers to be displayed as part of her piece — a truly collaborative work that inspires viewers to step beyond merely observing the work to become an artist themselves.

The traditional Día de los Muertos altar, then, was certainly not the norm — it seemed as though each artist had their own interpretation of what an altar should be. For example, three vastly different pieces at the show paid tribute to those that lost their lives in the Ghost Ship fire that occurred in an Oakland artists’ collective last year.

Many of the more unconventional altars focused on highly politicized themes such as police brutality, gentrification and immigration policy, as well as how people throughout history have resisted these types of oppression. In René Yañez’s words, “The content of history is filtered … (these pieces) tell the history that doesn’t exist.”

Of course, one of the most common figures in the resistance-oriented pieces is Donald Trump. “Retro Future: Revisiting the Past to Repair our Future,” by Elizabeth Addison, assisted by Mague Calanche, puts a comical spin on this by creating a futuristic space with scientific tools and gadgets to fix the future from the past. Complete with a robotic rendition of our very own President Trump, the description of their piece called it a “mythical time when ‘America was great.’ ”

It is impossible to talk about resistance, to create art that sparks political dialogue about resistance, without mentioning the disasters and divisiveness occurring under this tense political climate. René Yañez explained that this was one of the main reasons for this year’s theme: “Remembrance and Resistance.” Especially with everything that has happened recently in Mexico and Puerto Rico, Yañez wanted this exhibit to truly challenge people’s political consciousness. He was excited about SOMArts’ upcoming benefit for the victims of the earthquake in Mexico and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico at their Mission Salon on Oct. 20.

Not only does this type of politicized and memorialized artwork allow people to draw inspiration from memories of leaders and movements from the past, but it also reminds people of the explosive strength of the resistance in the present. And although Día de los Muertos is meant to honor and celebrate those that have passed, it is a continual reminder that we owe it to those who came before us to make the world better for those who come after.

The Día de los Muertos exhibition will be running at SOMArts Cultural Center until November 9.

Contact Julia Bertolero at [email protected].