The nation’s largest annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibition is keeping spirits alive in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Titled "La Muerte Niña: Day of the Dead," this year’s free exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art features 116 pieces from more than 90 artists of Mexican descent–many of them from Chicago–and offers an inside look at some of the traditions of the holiday.
Now in its 29th season at the museum, the exhibit showcases a range of media, including folk art, paintings, sculptures, prints, photography and 13 installations and “ofrendas"–offerings to the deceased, which also provide insight into a person’s life and represent efforts to keep an individual alive through the memories of what they enjoyed.
“Technically, ofrendas are the offerings that you place onto a Day of the Dead altar, such as prepared foods and drinks,” said NMMA visual arts director and chief curator Cesáreo Moreno. “But the word ofrenda is often used synonymously and when people talk about the ofrenda, they’re talking about the altar and its construction.”
A variety of ofrendas and installations are displayed throughout the five rooms of the Day of the Dead exhibit, including those dedicated to members of the community and that pay homage to Mexican celebrities—including singer Selena, wrestler Santo and actor Anthony Quinn. A massive three-tiered ofrenda is designed in the monumental style of the small Mexican town of Huaquechula, Puebla.
Perhaps the most haunting display is an installation created by Chicago artist Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves, titled “We are Earth and Earth with Fire makes Stone." The piece, like this year’s exhibit itself, is dedicated to the 43 missing Mexican students from the Raul Burgos Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. The students were allegedly abducted from their school buses by Mexican police in September 2014 and then turned over to a criminal gang, causing national protests in Mexico and worldwide outrage ever since.
The death child
This year’s exhibit spotlights the Mexican Colonial painting tradition of the “death child” (“la muerte niña”) and “the little angels” (“los angelitos”) ritual, as seen in Rocío Caballero’s painting titled “On the Threshold of Silence."
Although “la muerte niña”—which features portraits of deceased children—is not directly associated with the Day of the Dead holiday, the exhibit’s curator Dolores Mercado decided to include the genre in order to showcase a different understanding of death from the Mexican perspective.
“When your young child passes away, you would hire a painter to come and do a portrait of your child as if he or she was sleeping,” Moreno said. “In the late 19th century, early 20th century, photography came on board and all of the sudden everybody could afford to do it, and this tradition became very popular.”
“Even though it’s called Day of the Dead, it is actually a celebration of life”
The concept of “little angels” relates to the idea that all children who pass away are innocent and pure in spirit. The ritual does have a direct connection to the holiday and, while Day of the Dead is uniquely observed throughout different regions in Mexico between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 , Moreno said that many towns welcome the souls of “little angels” back to Earth on Oct. 31 before receiving the adults on Nov. 1.
According to Moreno, the holiday itself and the folk tradition of honoring the dead originates from a blend of ancient religious rituals from the indigenous people of Mexico with Catholicism beliefs from All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day that the Spanish introduced in the 16th century.
“Those two things come together in Day of the Dead. It is neither one nor the other—it’s both,” Moreno explained. “In other words, the pope certainly does not believe that on Nov. 1, at midnight, that the doors open in heaven so that all of the souls can come back down to Earth and reminisce among the living—that is not a Catholic belief. But in Mexico, that is the belief for Day of the Dead, so people go to cemeteries to await the arrival of the souls of their friends and their family and they spend the night there reminiscing and celebrating. And the next day, everybody goes home, often leaving a trail of flower petals in case the returning souls have forgotten the way back.”
Day of the Dead is one of the most popular holidays in Mexico, but in the U.S., Moreno explained that the idea of talking about death and deceased loved ones can often be seen as taboo.
“I think that in the United States, death is not seen as a part of life, it’s seen as the opposite of life,” Moreno said. “Even though it’s called Day of the Dead, it is actually a celebration of life, it’s a celebration of family and it’s a time in which the living are allowed to speak about death. In America we speak about death only at wakes and funerals—in Mexico, once a year, the topic turns to who is no longer with us. Day of the Dead is actually something incredibly helpful for the human soul—it allows one to grieve, and to remember, and to really keep alive the memories and ideas of those who are no longer physically with us—so they’re still part of our family every year.”
Each year, the NMMA holds a free community festival on Nov. 1 in conjunction with its Day of the Dead exhibit. This year, the museum expands the event, called Day of the Dead in the City of Chicago, with outdoor festivities from 4-9 p.m.
The event will feature musical performances, altar demonstrations, interactive installations, art activities, face painting and plenty of traditional Day of the Dead food and drinks, including bread of the dead (“pan de muerto”) and “atole”—a hot, corn-based beverage that is often consumed to keep warm while visiting cemeteries during the holiday.
A perfect place to drink atole at the event will be in the soccer field of neighboring Harrison Park, which the NMMA will transform into a festive, makeshift cemetery—complete with community-constructed ofrendas. The NMMA is currently accepting design proposals and is offering the public an opportunity to submit photos of deceased loved ones that will be projected onto the museum’s outer east wall during the event. In addition, the museum will be projecting an animation telling the story of Day of the Dead on its outer north wall.
'You don't have to be Mexican'
With the exhibit and events breathing life into educating the public at large about Day of the Dead, Moreno said that he is confident that those who visit the museum will leave with a greater understanding of the holiday’s traditions and values.
“We don’t want our visitors to walk away thinking Day of the Dead has to do with artists and galleries, we want them to understand what happens in the home and in the cemetery—that’s really the key to understanding Day of the Dead,” Moreno said. “You don’t have to be Mexican and you don’t have to be Christian—you just have to be human and be part of the grieving process. It’s such a beautiful tradition if you really understand what it’s about at its core, get over the word “dead” in there, and realize that it’s a way of showing love and bringing the community together during this tragic time. That’s what I want people to walk away with, the idea that this is something for everyone. Like Christmas, it’s one of those magical times of the year.”
Day of the Dead traditions
We asked Cesáreo Moreno to explain some of the traditional items associated with Day of the Dead. Here’s what he had to say.
Candles and Incense: The candle represents light in the darkness. In the ancient, indigenous times, the different elements—air, earth, water and fire—really have a spiritual presence. Incense is related to that with the smoke taking the prayers up through the air.
Sugar skulls: A big element in Central Mexico. They are a way of humorously looking at death. You would exchange them with someone, almost like a valentine card.
Skeletons: Usually portrayed as alive and in the process of doing something, like riding a bicycle. So it’s not a static skeleton, they’re living and they’re usually humorous.
Bread of the dead: Bread has been a long-standing tradition and is very different in different regions. They are decorated with elements that resemble bones, or they’re done in the figure of the human body.
Skull masks: When the Spanish arrived to teach Biblical stories or the stories of saints they would re-enact them with costumed plays and dances for the indigenous people. Costumes are huge in Mexico and masks are everywhere.
Marigolds: I think that flowers are an important element in that they assault all of your senses—it’s not just visual. Marigolds became very important because they represent the sun and in ancient indigenous times they were seen as a direct connection with the sun god.
Fruit: A lot of local fruits are placed on ofrendas. I’ve been to so many different towns for Day of the Dead in Mexico and it almost becomes a celebration of the region. So if you’re in a town that produces a lot of oranges, you’re going to see a lot of oranges on the ofrendas. So it’s not only a way of saying welcome back to your home, but to your region.
A glass of water: Used to welcome back the souls so that they can refresh themselves.
The exhibition “La Muerte Niña: Day of the Dead” is on display in the NMMA’s main gallery through Dec. 13. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; the museum is closed on Mondays.