SOMArts Día de los Muertos exhibit inspires through poignant, political artwork

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On Oct. 12, the SOMArts Cultural Center, a nonprofit art enclave in the heart of San Francisco, opened its 19th annual exhibition in celebration of Día de los Muertos. The exhibit, which brought to life the theme “Honoring our Ancestors by Fighting for the Future,” largely remained consistent with previous years’ efforts to highlight local artists and demonstrate themes of political resistance and activism.

But this year’s exhibit was bound to be different. On May 29, 2018, René Yañez, a Mission-based Chicano arts icon credited with bringing Frida Kahlo’s work to the Bay Area, passed away. René Yañez had been curating the annual Día de los Muertos exhibition at SOMArts for 18 years, eventually bringing in his son Rio Yañez as co-curator.

This year, co-curators Rio Yañez and Carolina Quintanilla bring audiences an exhibition that serves René’s legacy — one that celebrates his life by connecting audiences to art, culture, life and politics. The exhibit is as vibrant as it is resilient and succeeds in creatively displaying a thoroughly moving, uplifting and unabashedly political collection of art.

The theme of “Honoring our Ancestors by Fighting for the Future” is especially appropriate for the exhibit, which bridges ideas of past and future in several ways. The format itself bridges a Mexican cultural tradition with a contemporary artistic layout. The exhibit incorporates traditional Día de los Muertos altars commemorating deceased family members and cultural icons alike. This also represents the idea of art as a tool of resistance through the frequent use of art “rooms,” in which pieces are displayed in three-walled corridors that invite audiences in to view and interact with the artists’ work. The format itself bridges a Mexican cultural tradition with a contemporary artistic layout.

Pieces in remembrance of René Yañez are included throughout the exhibit. One piece commemorates him but takes the additional step of highlighting René’s signature sense of humor. Dean and Juliet Flower MacCannell’s “Out of the Fade into Deep Focus” includes a colorful portrait of René on a closed door. Once opened, a paper skeleton bearing the resemblance of René pops out — a charming surprise for audiences that incorporates some of René’s own tongue-in-cheek artistic humor in its execution.

Other pieces bridge past and future by recognizing and showcasing iconic Latinx and Chicanx artists. For example, “Enfolding Frida,” a collaboration by Lilli Lanier, Rachel-Anne Palacios and Emily Winslow-Cabrera, is a mesmerizing mosaic portrait of Frida Kahlo supplemented by colorful paper flower designs on canvas. Under soft, clear lighting, the piece spans a large wall that greets audiences at the entrance, setting the stage for the vibrancy that encompasses visitors through the exhibit.

Other pieces, meanwhile, acknowledge historical injustices that have plagued the Chicanx community and other underrepresented ethnic groups in the United States. One of the exhibit’s most politically cognizant and poignant pieces, Patricia Montgomery’s “Remembering the Missing Children” is constructed in one of the exhibit’s open rooms. Spanning its walls is a collage of devastating photos and captions documenting the country’s history of family separation. A floral dress sits on the mannequin in the center, embroidered with statements about this ongoing crisis. “Thousands of children have lost their parents or families along the US-Mexico border,” is written right at the bottom of the skirt.

The exhibit, moreover, is defined by the ways in which it uses art to highlight budding social movements and map out the future of social justice and community activism. cj grossman’s “Me Too/Her Too” is a shocking and intricate observation on victimhood and survivorhood in the #MeToo movement. “Me Too/Her Too,” a metal “tree” constructed of patterned bras, is central to the exhibit as a whole, expanding themes of activism and solidarity to represent the transformation and progress of social justice into the future.

“Honoring our Ancestors by Fighting for the Future” is a thought-provoking, heartening collection of art created by and for activists. Above all, Rio Yañez and Quintanilla build a compilation of art that, whether creatively, emotionally or politically, can truly resonate with audiences — a collection that carries the legacy of René Yañez from the past to the future and beyond.

Anagha Komaragiri covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.