The Bay Area Art Scene Lost So Many in 2021, This Altar-Maker Could Barely Keep Up

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Bay Area artist Adrian Arias poses at SOMArts with his altar dedicated to five Latinx people killed by the police in the U.S. and Mexico in recent years. (Courtesy of the artist)

At the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, Oakland-based artist Adrian Arias stands in front of an altar he created to memorialize Bay Area visual artist Yolanda López, who died in September of cancer.

The elaborate assemblage of objects from López’s life features tubes of paint, brushes, furniture and clothes framing Arias’ feathery painted portrait of López wearing a sweeping pair of wings.

“She was a friend, a mentor, and one of the most important Chicano artists,” Arias says. “She was an inspiration for the community.”

Adrian Arias's altar to Bay Area artist Yolanda López at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

This altar is one of several memorials Arias has created this year for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in honor of Bay Area artists who died in 2021.

With its roots in Mexico, Day of the Dead is now observed across Latin America and the United States, and honors loved ones who have died. One of the main traditions is making elaborate memorial altars featuring candles, photographs, the deceased’s possessions, and candy skulls.

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Some of the altars on view at the Mission Cultural Center—which serves as a kind of “ground zero” for the holiday in San Francisco—are not focused on artists. But altars dedicated specifically to memorializing artists have been a particular focus at the center over the years.

“This being a cultural and artistic center, we particularly think that this should be the place where we honor artists,” says Jennie Rodriguez, the center’s executive director.

The main altar at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, by the Bay Area artist collective Manos Creativas, riffs on many symbols associated with Dia de los Muertos, rather than on memorializing a specific artists. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

A Bridge Between the Dead and the Living

The theme and title of this year’s Day of the Dead celebration (the Mission Cultural Center’s 35th), is Ni Tanto Ni Tan Muertos (Neither so many nor so dead).

“Neither so many, because there are so many more of us that are alive,” Rodriguez says. “And nor so dead, because the dead are still with us; they accompany us in our memories.”

Arias takes this theme to heart as an artist who’s been making these altars for years as a sort of bridge between the dead and the living. “The aim is to create these invisible lines that inspire people to do things,” Arias says, adding that the action he hopes to inspire can take several forms, from making art to being kind to others.

From left to right: Artist Adrian Arias, Mission Cultural Center executive director Jennie Rodriguez and Manos Creativas member Marco Morales. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

His installations honoring dead artists have been exhibited at Davies Symphony Hall and the Oakland Museum of California, among other cultural spaces.

The artist typically does one or two installations a year. But in 2021, Arias says he’s barely been able to keep up with the death toll among his friends and mentors—even when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown gave him plenty of focused studio time.

“That was so intense,” he says. “You just paint and paint and paint and paint.”

Besides the altar to López, his offerings for 2021 honor postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin, visual artist Hung Liu, and poets Jack Hirschman and Janice Mirikitani. All died this year and had strong ties to the Bay Area. All but one, Liu, were people with whom Arias had a powerful personal connection.

“He became my mentor in poetry,” Arias says of Hirschman, who died Aug. 22 at age 87. “Very generous, like a father figure.”

Arias studied dance with Halprin and collaborated with her. Despite her age (she was 100 when she died on May 24), Arias says, “Most of my community, we think that Anna was immortal, because she was moving at 99.”

A section from Adrian Arias's altar to Anna Halprin at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Day of the Dead As a Social Justice Tool

But not all of Arias’ Day of the Dead creations are about artists.

Over at SOMArts Cultural Center, Arias has made an altar memorializing five young Latinx people killed by police officers in the U.S. and Mexico in recent years. Among them are Bay Area locals Mario Gonzalez and Sean Monterrosa.

Arias says the public doesn’t know enough about the many individuals who have lost their lives to police violence. Honoring them on Day of the Dead is a way to keep their lives and stories at the forefront and galvanize people to take a stand against the ongoing killings.

“We need to develop art as a social justice tool,” he says. “Day of the Dead is the perfect moment to do that.”

The massive black-and-white portraits on paper are suspended from the ceiling of the gallery. They undulate and creak whenever a breeze passes through.

“They look like they are alive,” Arias says.

Whether he knew them in life or not, Arias talks about the subjects of his Day of the Dead altars as if they’re still among us.

Putting a hand to his heart, he says: “They’re right here.”