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El Dia de los Muertos 

by Sheri Boggs


It would seem that there is nothing that wandering spirits like so much as sugar combined with raucous activity. For instance, here in the United States, kids celebrate Halloween by dressing up as ghosts, running around in the dark and hitting the neighbors up for candy. While that's pretty fun, one has to admit that kids in Mexico have it pretty good as well. It's not uncommon there for kids to get their own candy skull (complete with their name neatly piped in frosting on top) to gnaw on. Gross and tasty. But if you think that sounds macabre, think again. The day after Halloween, "El Dia de los Muertos" or Day of the Dead, is a festival of bright colors, candlelight and fun -- a sort of Mardi Gras for the passed-beyond.


In addition to the candy skulls, people bring out skeleton figures in a variety of lifelike tableaus (for instance, riding skeletal burros or playing cards with other skeletons). Death takes on a cheerfully cartoonish visage as skeleton candelabra, dressed in skirts of marigold yellow and parrot green, illuminate the night.


A new exhibit at Gonzaga's Jundt Art Museum brings together a small collection of these artifacts, in addition to contemporary interpretations of the Day of the Dead festival by three local artists, Ruben Trejo, Carolyn Stephens and Patty Haag. The show is also augmented by both a lecture from Eastern Washington University's Carlos Maldonado and a panel discussion on cultural appropriation.


Ruben Trejo's installation at the Jundt is a new variation on his "walking nail" motif from previous exhibitions, including a 1999 exhibit at the Chase Gallery and a piece for the Smithsonian that is currently touring the United States as part of a Latin American traveling exhibition. More than 40 railroad spike compositions line the wall and gather together on the floor, their pointy ends forming feet, hands and other expressive extremities.


"What I'm doing here is taking the idea of one line and trying to possibly exhaust everything you could do with it. So far I haven't," says Trejo.


His work has often been seen as a sort of alphabet, with his small constructions evoking everything from strands of DNA to Chinese characters. In the case of this installation at the Jundt, his pieces endeavor to spell out the unexplainable. In keeping with the Mexican tradition of building a small altar to honor the dead, Trejo's installation includes an altar piece dedicated to the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Two elongated spikes form each tower, polished silver and gleaming, set in a wooden base through which a spike has been driven. The composition, which Trejo calls "amor di morto," or "love that kills," suggests both optimism and sudden violence.


"Human beings need to be careful about what they love so fiercely," he explains. "Love can so easily turn to hate. A love for one's god or one's faith can walk a thin line to becoming hatred."


Many of the pieces that surround the altar installation also have an aggressive edge, of which Trejo is well aware.


"Man has always been a dysfunctional animal. Man always has to be killing somebody, whether it's about money or power or land. The spike itself is very aggressive. The only time it isn't is when it's a more feminine shape, when I've been able to bend and curve them. Which is interesting, because then you can't use it for its intended purpose."


In fact, some of the spike configurations appear to be playful, with curling, circular and kicky lines. That too is an intentional homage to the whimsical side of Day of the Dead.


"The whole attitude of Day of the Dead is about acknowledging the spirits and the memories of our loved ones. You're not dead as long as somebody here still thinks of you," he says. "In the Mexican culture, we make friends with death because someday, we will all have to meet him. You can try to make him your enemy, but it's better if you can laugh with him. Day of the Dead is like a mirror, it's like a reflection of the good qualities of life."





The first thing you notice about Carolyn Stephens'


installation is the smell. Framed in an arch of golden,


crusty loaves of bread, her enormous portrait of Madonna and Child (after Raphael) is redolent with the aroma of hearth and home. And the portrait itself, comprised of the red, blue, black, yellow and white of hundreds of playing cards, offers further clues into the artist's relationship to her installation.


"What I'm trying to do with this piece is explore the notions of memory and recollection, particularly because my mother is losing hers to Alzheimer's," explains Stephens. "The cards are a bit of symbolism -- perhaps it's silly -- for me because therapists tell Alzheimer patients to be active and to practice their computation and strategy skills by playing cards. Quite frankly, my mother never liked cards but my dad is pretty good at them, so they play two or three times a week although at this point they're down to things like 'War.' "


Stephens, who usually works as a painter, found the three-dimensional world of installation art somewhat intimidating. She is adding an altar area of corn meal and rice to the card portrait to give the piece a sculptural element.


"I know what to do with paper, canvas and paint. Staple guns and cards aren't my usual forte."


Although Stephens is not Mexican-American, she has traveled through Mexico with friend Patty Haag (the two collaborated on a similar exhibit for the Spokane Falls Community College gallery several years ago) and also finds parallels in her own Italian heritage.


"I love religious kitsch. I come from an Italian family where that stuff is welcomed and encouraged," she says. "When I went to Mexico and saw the Day of the Dead festival for the first time, being a bit of a nonbeliever, I concluded that modern people don't believe that the skeletons and the spirits are coming back to eat the corn meal and bread or to drink the cocoa. What it is, is more about the living. It's about remembering the past and celebrating that life and enjoying the connectivity."


Coming from American culture, where Halloween is about all things morbid, creepy and freaky, Stephens finds that the Mexican attitude is quite different.


"Mexico is unique in terms of how death and skeletons are viewed. I understood, instinctively perhaps, that the skeletons and skulls are not meant to be ghoulish in the sense that our Halloween is. I see a lot of lightness and fun in Day of the Dead. Kids have a great time chomping into those candy skulls."





While the installations by Trejo and


Stephens include altars, the piece by


Spokane artist Patty Haag itself is an altar.


"This wasn't my first idea," she admits, gesturing at the fiery colors and glittering textures of her corner installation. "My first plan for the altar, I was thinking 'calm,' 'meditative' -- something with glass blocks illuminated by shafts of blue light in a dark space. But I just couldn't do it. I had to do this. This is passionate, red, joyful, full of life and energy."


While Haag found much of her inspiration in witnessing Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico, it is not her intention to create an authentic replica for the show at the Jundt.


"In planning this show, I kept having the thought 'I am not Mexican. I am not trying to recreate a Mexican altar.' It will look something like that, but this is more of a response to that tradition," she says. "I wanted to use objects from other cultures and things that have been in my house for years that have a special meaning to me."


In this vein, Haag's installation offers a rewarding bit of multiculturalism. Colorful handwoven fabrics that at first glance look to be Guatemalan turn out to be from Indonesia and Thailand. A handmade bowl with seemingly Mexican design is actually of Chippewa Indian descent. And some of the pieces, for instance a black silk shawl with vividly embroidered flowers, have an even stronger personal association for Haag.


"My father was in Italy in World War II, and he brought this back for my mother. She wouldn't let anybody even try it on when I was growing up, but she lent it to me to use in this show."


Many of the pieces that Haag will incorporate into her altar have some personal association to the past. Some, particularly the wooden snakes and ladders, are actually from older pieces of her own work. And still others are there just because their intense colors and wild patterns stir her imagination.


"One of the things I came away from seeing Day of the Dead in Mexico with is a sense of this celebration as being not only about death, but also light, ritual and community. I love how there's music and food and everything that dazzles the eye."





"El Dia de los Muertos" opens at the Jundt Art Museum on Friday, Oct. 26, and runs through Dec. 14. Free public reception, Thursday, Nov. 1, from 7-9 pm at the museum. Carlos Maldonado, director of the Chicano Education Program at EWU, gives a free lecture, "La Tradici & oacute;n de el dia de los muertos: An Historical and Contemporary Sketch" at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Nov. 8, in the Jepson Center Auditorium. The panel discussion "Cultural Appropriations: Artistic License or Artistic Theft?" takes place in the Hughes Hall Auditorium on Thursday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 pm. Call: 323-6611.

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