The Mexican holiday Day of the Dead is a time of return. Families come together, city dwellers return to ancestral villages, farm and factory workers test the international borders and the dead visit the living.
With roots deep in the pre-Columbian past, the commemoration of the triumph of the cycle of life continues within the context of the Catholic church’s All Souls Day, in both a spiritual and visual sense. Artisans working with traditional, often ephemeral materials such as paper, clay and sugar, create images filled with broad humour and cutting satire to remind the living that the life you lead on earth garners respect or ridicule in the after life. Dead politicians, grandparents, the middle-aged and children are greeted after death during their annual symbolic return to earth, to their homes and to their gravesites. Their loved ones set up and decorate altars (ofrendas) for them in their homes. Death, the great equalizer, knocks on every door.
As such, death demands respect. The preparations of food and drinks enjoyed by the commemorated dead hold a central position on the home altar; families sing the familiar songs and re-tell the intimate stories and jokes that remind them of the departed spirit. In this way, the dead rejoin the living until they return to the spirit world and the cycle moves forward again.
Many families spend the last night at the graveyard, sitting with their children, softly speaking among themselves or perhaps playing a guitar and singing softly. Some families will hire mariachis to add joyful music to the night. Candles are glowing and incense is sending the shared emotions to the night, along with the thoughts and prayers of those who have taken the time to welcome home those who have gone before.
In the cities, students, office workers and artists often create ofrendas dedicated to great figures of culture or to local heroes. These completely contemporary ofrendas are more public in their aspect as artistic expressions and influence the altars decorated at Harbourfront Centre. Communities have come together to share in the making of these ofrendas that carry an ancient tradition forward into the future.
Diane Wolfe, Artistic Associate