Kapwa Gardens’ ‘Ancestor Altars’ Brings Healing for All Souls Day

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Six portraits by Cece Carpio will be part of the ‘Ancestor Altars’ art installation on view at Kapwa Gardens. (Kristie Song)

In early 2019, a tiny parking lot sat idly on 967 Mission St. By the fall, Kultivate Labs — an economic development nonprofit and arts organization working to bolster San Francisco’s SOMA Pilipinas district — had transformed the space into a colorful, lush paradise for gathering and healing. They named it Kapwa Gardens, revitalizing the once lonely environment with the Filipino belief of kapwa, or interconnectedness. On Sunday Oct. 30, Balay Kreative — an artist support program under Kultivate Labs — will launch the Ancestor Altars art installation at an All Souls Day event to honor deceased loved ones.

In Filipino culture, All Souls Day provides a window of time to reunite with the dead and to commemorate their memory with joy. “Oftentimes when people think about going to the cemetery, it’s a somber, dark time,” says Nicole Maxali, Balay Kreative program manager and Ancestor Altars organizer. “But for Filipinos, it’s more of a celebration of the afterlife.” At the height of the pandemic, Maxali was impacted by personal and collective grief — loss was everywhere and the usual means of processing these feelings were severed.

“That lack of physical connection during mourning was very devastating for a lot of folks,” says Maxali. “And so my idea was, ‘Why don’t we have an event at Kapwa Gardens so that people can come together with their families — with the community — and celebrate those that have passed on during the pandemic?’”

Muralist Cece Carpio sets up the portraits for ‘Ancestor Altars.’ (Kristie Song)

The installation features six large, framed portraits of deceased ancestors by muralist Cece Carpio that lead into tiered altars that hold various offerings and symbols decorated by artist TITTY. Each tier represents a step to heaven and highlights different remnants important to the dead, including framed photos, candles, flowers and food offerings like rice. Local community members are encouraged to visit the space now, though a more communal celebration with live musical performances will occur at the All Souls Day event on Sunday, Oct. 30.

Ancestor Altars and its accompanying celebration marks Kultivate Labs’ and Balay Kreative’s first effort in uniting the community for All Souls Day at Kapwa Gardens. By illuminating portraits and creating spaces where people can grieve together after a long period of isolation, Maxali hopes to promote generational healing. Through acknowledging and carrying on legacies in new ways, the act of moving forward can be both expansive and restorative.

Portraits by Cece Carpio from ‘Ancestor Altars.’ (Kristie Song)

“I think what’s beautiful about Ancestor Altars is that it not only is an event to honor our ancestors and those that come before us,” says Maxali. “But it’s also a great way for the next generation to understand that they come from such powerful people — that they, in turn, can move forward and bring so much power and beauty to their descendants.”

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All Souls Day: An Afterlife Celebration takes place Sunday, Oct. 30 from 1-6 p.m. at Kapwa Gardens. Admission is free. Ancestor Altars will be on view until Oct. 30. Details here.