Last year I was blown away by guest curator, Carol Marie Garcia's exhibition Laughing Bones/Weeping Hearts: Días de los Muertos 2006, at the the Oakland Museum of California in celebration of Días de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). So, it was with some nervous expectation that I entered this year's Ancient Roots/Urban Journeys: Expressions for Días de los Muertos at the Oakland Museum of California. Would it be the same? How could the museum top last year?
Of course, you can't duplicate a standout exhibition, but you can stand out on your own in a whole new way -- and that's just what the Oakland Museum has done this year. Ancient Roots/Urban Journeys: Expressions for Días de los Muertos marks the 14th year that the Oakland Museum of California has celebrated the Day of the Dead. Although the exhibition is smaller in size than last year, the museum once again presents visitors with a thoughtful and colorful exhibition. Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, associate director/curator of San Jose's Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), guest curated the special exhibition of ofrendas created by local artists that reinterpret traditional meanings of the holiday while looking at current urban conflicts. The background for each ofrenda is painted a different color and each offers a different perspective on tradition celebrations.
The threat of urban violence is present in more than one of the ofrendas (ofrenda means offering in Spanish and in this case, the altars built to remember and honor the dead). In one corner of the exhibition there is a recreation of the street altar that was built after Oakland Post Editor, Chauncey Wendell Bailey Jr. was gunned down on August 2, 2007, in downtown Oakland. Photos of the actual street altar hang above the one installed at the museum. In one powerful image, which depicts the impact of violence, a young child on a bicycle has stopped in front of the memorial to take a look. In another ofrenda, Amor Eterno/Eternal Love, school children from the Reach Academy created R.I.P. t-shirts to honor those who died by violent death.
Aida Gamez's El Camino a Ningún Lado/Road to Nowhere, combines the use of cornhusks and a Buddhist mandala to honor those who have died while trying to cross over the border into the United States. Her ofrenda reminds viewers that the story of illegal immigration is not simply a news article about laws and statistics. Gamez puts a human face on those who have died, filling the mandala with photos and writing their names on the corn husks that hang from the ceiling. The artwork seems to ask, what if you knew one of these people? What if you knew them all? How would you honor them?
We live in a fast-paced world where reflection is often neglected and important thoughts become passing thoughts. But, if you don't slow down enough to thoroughly investigate this exhibition you will miss many fine points, like an ofrenda about a storyteller and film fanatic who was deaf; the "giant petrified tears" in the curious tale of the search for a mythical land, Mictlan; the story behind the circle of coal at the center of Elizabeth Gomez's vibrantly colored Inversion Termal/Thermal Inversion; or a lone telephone that sits on a stand with a sign in small letters instructing, "Levante el teléfono. Pick up the phone." On the line listeners hear the voice of Antonio (Tony) Salazar asking you to leave a message, which, upon the realization that he is an honoree in the ofrenda to the left of the phone, is very moving to anyone who longs to hear the voice of a lost loved one, one more time.
Walking through the exhibition, I couldn't help, but wonder about how I honor and remember the dead? Is there more to losing someone than anger, sadness or relief? The ofrendas offered me peace and contentment, and I was delighted by the array of remembrances and objects that the artists had chosen to represent the lives of those past. Just when I was circling the gallery for the last time, I spied a place where museum visitors were invited to write down the name of someone they knew who had passed away, to add to a community ofrenda. I picked out a dark blue circle of tissue paper, the favorite color of the person I had been thinking about throughout the exhibition, scribbled down the name, folded the tissue paper in 8ths, and placed it in the metal grid that held other names on other tissue papers.Together they appeared as colorful flowers poking out of the metal.
Ancient Roots/Urban Journeys: Expressions for Días de los Muertos at the Oakland Museum of California runs from October 10 Â– December 2, 2007. For more information visit museumca.org