Folk art on display with DIA's ‘Day of the Dead’ ofrendas 

Altared States

Most Americans tend to only recognize death at funerals, and typically in a somber way. With its bright colors and sugar skulls, the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") offers an opportunity for people to remember their loved ones by creating altars, or ofrendas, in the memories of the deceased.

"It makes you more aware of life and of death," says Maria Elena Rodriguez of the holiday, which mixes Spanish Catholic traditions and indigenous Mexican traditions. Rodriguez grew up southwest Detroit, born to first-generation Mexican immigrants, though her family didn't celebrate the holiday. Learning more about the Day of the Dead led her to begin to celebrate it, and inspired her to further pay tribute to those who have come before by writing the book Detroit's Mexicantown.

Rodriguez is aware that the Day of the Dead is pretty different from the way most Americans approach the subject of death. She chalks it up to a fundamental cultural difference in dealing with life. "Mexicans in general tend to have a sense of humor where we find something humorous not to mock, but I think to keep our sanity in the darkest moments," she explains.

While the Day of the Dead tradition follows plenty of conventions — from decorating the altars with sugar skulls (or calaveras), flowers, photographs, favorite foods, and other mementos of the deceased — it's also important to think of it as a form of folk art, or a way for people who aren't artists in the professional sense to use the healing power of art.

The holiday enjoys a very visible celebration in Detroit's Mexicantown, where businesses and local organizations all join in to display their own ofrendas. Rodriguez says that started back during the time she served on the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation in the early '90s, and the idea came to make it more of a district-wide, public event.

"I felt really strongly that this is such a beautiful holiday that we should share it with the general public," she says. "I think that once we established something organically, it continued. There's no specific organization that (runs) it, at this point in time. It continues, and that's wonderful."

And in the spirit of the folk art nature of the tradition, the Detroit Institute of Arts is once again exhibiting ofrendas created by both professional and non-professional artists alike in honor of the holiday. It's the second year the museum has put out a call to artists to submit proposals to create their own ofrendas, and this year the number of ofrendas on display has nearly tripled for a total of 28. While the ofrendas were not yet completed by the time of press, we did get a look at the proposals, which range from the traditional end of the spectrum to the more conceptual.

On the more traditional end are the likes of Adrienne Lesperance's ofrenda for her Mexican-American grandparents, Betz King's "Ofrenda de mi Perra" in honor of a pet dog, or artist Mary Williams' memorial to her father — an altar that will be created out of workbench materials. Others honor celebrities, such as Natasha Mark's altar to the Ramones and Steve Miller, and Alex Goecke's tribute to Robin Williams.

On the more conceptual side are ofrendas like Melissa Dettloff's "A Longing for an Absent Something That Can't Be Described," which will memorialize mundane, discarded, and obsolete objects like flip phones and thrift store finds. Meanwhile, artist Heidi Barlow's ofrenda will simply be an altar to all things girly and pink. Some pack a political punch, though — such as artist Alana Rodriguez's ofrenda, which calls attention to the "Border Town Women," or the hundreds of women who have been mysteriously murdered for the past 20 years in Juarez, Mexico.

The show opens on Friday, Oct. 24, and features remarks by Detroit City Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez. There will also be a performance by soprano Catalina Cuervo, who will play the role of artist Frida Kahlo in the Michigan Opera Theatre's Frida, which opens next year. Sunday, Nov. 2, features a talk from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. with all of the exhibit's participating artists, as well as a presentation from Mexican consulate of Detroit, Ruben Millan Mayorga, who will speak about the history of the tradition.

Rodriguez says she thinks the holiday shouldn't just be limited to being celebrated by Mexicans. "I encourage everybody to celebrate Day of the Dead. Maybe it doesn't have to be that specific day, or those two days," she says. "It helps you heal. It brings a smile to your face. As long as you keep that person's memory alive, they're never really gone."

Opens at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 24, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org. Runs through Nov. 2. The event is free with museum admission.

More by Lee DeVito

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