Rather than fearing death, Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) winks at it, seeing it simply as part of the natural cycle of life. Throughout Latin America and other places where the tradition is honored, the first two days of November are a time to remember deceased friends and relatives with altars, visits to their graves and offerings of music and food.
Berkeley sculptor Carol Stewart first discovered Day of the Dead in her travels through Latin America. Soon afterward she was incorporating them into her art work. “When people in my family died, we didn’t know how to deal with it,” she said. “We could never express our grief. In Latin America, they thumb their nose at death, and see it as the other side of the coin. I think that’s really healthy.”
In recent years, awareness of the Day of the Dead has grown outside its traditional boundaries. Several Berkeley artists, including Stewart, were chosen this year to make contributions to San Francisco gallery SomArts’ Day of the Dead exhibit, and in doing so, have shown how the non-Latino community has embraced the day of remembrance.
Stewart’s contribution to the exhibit “Under the Skin” is a collection of figurines draped with fabric, encircled with wire and illuminated from behind.
She said the piece represents her father’s death this year from melanoma, with the figures symbolizing the body and the wire symbolizing the cancer. “There’s a thin veil between life and death,” she said. “I saw that with my father.”
Printmaker and Berkeley resident Elizabeth Addison’s altar, “She Could Have Danced All Night,” pays tribute to her friend Nancy Wilcox who also died of cancer this year. Wilcox loved dancing and parties, said Addison, and her exhibit includes prints of couples dancing and embracing.
“It really took on a life of its own,” said Addison. Her tribute reveals traditional and modern influence. It includes a collage that Wilcox made entitled “Mexican Dresses” and computer-generated music by Wilcox’ son. A slide projection of William Shakespeare’s 30th Sonnet, which Addison read at her friend’s memorial service this spring, enfolds and completes the altar.
Addison spoke highly of show curator Rene Yañez, who has been organizing Day of the Dead events in the Bay Area for three decades. “Rene really tries to make it cross-cultural, and we all bring our own sensibilities to it. It’s not something that’s strictly Hispanic,” she said.
Berkeley artist Jos Sances agreed. “I’ve been working with Rene for over 20 years, and he was always a guy who was into sharing culture, not keeping it separate,” said Sances, whose own tribute to the late Fetterly Gallery director Dan Robeski is included in the SomArts show. “The cross-hybridization adds
vitality to the show,” he said.
For Sances, who grew up in New England, Day of the Dead evokes “the bittersweet melancholy of autumn. There’s an understanding that the light is diminishing and the cold of winter is in front of you,” he said. “It’s a very profound time for me and as close to spiritual as I get.”
Sances says that the Halloween he grew up with does not come close to its Latin American counterpart. “It never had the resonance of Day of the Dead,” he said. “This really ties it all together for me.”
Curator Yañez has personally experienced how the Day of the Dead has changed. “At first, Day of the Dead was celebrated solely within the Mexican-American community,” said Yanez. “Now, it’s been adopted by people of many cultures and religions. The Bay Area can take credit for celebrating the Day of the Dead and influencing mainstream U.S. culture.”