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Chicago museum elevates Day of the Dead celebrations to artform

With centuries-old history, appealing family-friendly customs and immediately identifiable iconography, Day of the Dead – or Día de los Muertos in Spanish – has emerged as one of the fastest-growing holidays in the United States.

No institution has done more to popularize this south-of-the-border tradition in Chicago than the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, which for the 30th consecutive year will present what it bills as the largest annual Day of the Dead exhibition in the United States. “This is our golden goose,” said Cesáreo Moreno, the museum’s chief curator and visual director.

‘#30 Día de los Muertos: Journey of the Soul’
When: Sept. 24-Dec. 11; Admission, free
Public opening reception, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 23

Day of the Dead Chicago
When: 3 to 8 p.m. Oct. 30
Admission, free

Where: National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th
Info: nmmart.org

Last year’s show drew more than 80,000 people – about half of the institution’s annual attendance. Museum officials expect this year’s edition, which opens Sept. 24 and runs through Dec. 11, to match and probably even top that turnout.

Titled “#30 Día de los Muertos: Journey of the Soul,” it will feature ofrendas, photographs and other artworks by more than 50 artists from Mexico and the United States, including a half dozen or so based in Chicago.

“The ultimate thing about the Day of the Dead is that it is a beautiful way to deal with death,” Moreno said. “It doesn’t avoid it. It embraces the idea of death as a part of life, and because of that, it [this presentation] is more than just an art exhibit. It is something that really is meaningful to everybody.”

Hector Silva, "Pin Up Girl Calavera," 2010. Pencil on museum board. | COURTESY NMMA

Hector Silva, “Pin Up Girl Calavera,” 2010. Pencil on museum board. | COURTESY NMMA

Taking place in conjunction with the show is “Day of the Dead Chicago,” a free annual outdoor holiday celebration that attracted 10,000 people last year. This year’s installment will run from 3 to 8 p.m. Oct. 30 and will include projections on the museum building and the re-creation of Mexican-style cemetery festivities on the nearby Harrison Park soccer field.

The roots of Day of the Dead can be traced back centuries to the spiritual and cosmological beliefs of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. After the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, it became associated with Allhallowtide, a three-day Catholic celebration, and was enshrined as a national holiday in the 20th century.

On Nov. 2 – All Souls Day in the Catholic Church – families across Mexico spend the night with their departed loved ones in cemeteries decorated with marigolds (the traditional flowers of the dead), sugar skulls and cardboard skeletons, tissue-paper decorations and fruits and nuts.

“Just the way you would welcome your aunt who was coming from Cleveland is the way we welcome back the dead,” Moreno said. “So, [the dead] are not scary. That’s how it is not like Halloween. They’re not spooky. We want them to come back.”

Long Beach, Calif., photograph Pam Bacich published a 2014 book with images of Day of the Dead celebrations primarily in the southern Mexican states of Michoacán and Oaxaca. Two of her photos, which she took during trips with her husband beginning in 2002, and a light box will be on view in this year’s exhibition.

“The first time we walked into one of those graveyards, you just stop dead,” Bacich said. “It’s overwhelming. It’s just so beautiful, and the families are so welcoming.”

Mexican immigrants brought the Day of the Dead with them to the United States. It has since transcended ethnic boundaries to become a part of mainstream popular culture, with the sugar skull serving as its emblem, much like the Easter bunny or Santa Claus. Indeed, the holiday has become so popular that the museum strives to make sure that its true meaning is not watered down or lost. Moreno said that the annual exhibition is a kind of “Day of the Dead 101,” an overview of the event, with both traditional and contemporary artistic takes.

Hector Silva, "Los Home Boys, Calavera," 2014; pencil on museum board. | COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Hector Silva, “Los Home Boys, Calavera,” 2014; pencil on museum board. | COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

A highlight will be a series of ofrendas or altars – installations which pay tribute to people who have died with fruit, flowers, candles and mementos. A last-minute addition this year will be one devoted to Mexico’s Juan Gabriel, the musical superstar, who died a few weeks ago. “If we opened this year’s Day of the Dead exhibit and Juan Gabriel is not honored, we’d hear a lot of comments and it would be a disservice to him,” Moreno said.

Jorge Valdivia, formerly the museum’s director of performing arts, is creating Gabriel’s ofrenda, which will include video montages and recordings of his music, remembrances solicited via social media and a chair representing his absence.

Among the exhibition’s first-time participants will be Bianca Diaz, a 25-year-old artist and educator. She is showing three watercolors she created as illustrations for a children’s book that is based her experiences of growing up in Pilsen and participating in the neighborhood’s celebration of Day of the Dead.

“I really look forward to it,” she said. “It’s a very spiritual holiday. There’s a lot of creativity involved – things you can make and ways you can celebrate people who have passed away.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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