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18th Annual Altars Exhibition at El Museo

Detail from "Mirror, Mirror" by Jose Fuentes.
Papal picado.

Magic and Loss

“There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.” The song lyrics by Lou Reed express something central to the Day of the Dead. His words were a kind of musical altar to the memory of two close friends who had died. Now, during this auspicious time of year, he too has passed on.

The Mexican holiday, El Dia de los Muertos, is a moment to honor the dead. Since pre-Columbian time, Mexican families and friends have gathered during the first two days of November to build altars, commune at grave sites, pray, and offer gifts. Creating honorary altars has become a Buffalo tradition and a community celebration of life in conjunction with our local Halloween festivities. Carved pumpkins, candy, and costumes have roots in Celtic harvest festivals that marked the end of summer’s light and the start of winter’s darker months. The goblins, ghosts, and skeletons likely arose from the concurrent Catholic holiday trio of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. All of these special days of fall come together around the image of a cheerful skeleton.

El Museo’s storefront window displays a mixed-media painting by this year’s featured artist, Christopher Galley. We’re Putting the Band Back Together shows a lineup of fully clothed skeletal musicians with their instruments. Traditional altars frequently include Catrina figures (finely dressed skeletal ladies), marigold (cempoalxochitl) blossoms, sugar skulls, foods, beverages, masks, photos, candles, and other mementos representative of the deceased loved ones.

Inside the gallery, an array of local artists and North Tonwanda school children have installed their personal interpretations of altars using traditional objects and iconography, as well as unexpected items. Included in the installations are butterflies, angels, a bed frame, poetry, LED lights, chairs, sheet music, instruments, dolls, tarot cards, dishes, branches and leaves, rocks and shells, chains, hearts, animals, thread, flags, military clothing, watches, jewelry, beer cans, cigarette butts, animal imagery, and mirrors. The name of each artist is hand-printed onto decorative papel picado (perforated paper) cut in the Mexican folk-art style and strung around the gallery walls. The school children have been busy making repujado (embossed tin) skulls, ceramic skulls, and ceramic flowers.

Each altar tells a story. Many are moving tributes to family, friends, and pets. Others comment on losses that are concerns of our social and natural worlds. Jennifer Fendya’s Bearing Witness shows us the fate of endangered species, particularly the rhinoceros. An exposed beating heart is central to Mary Ellen Adrayna Bossart’s A Tribute to Loss of Privacy. The Bystran sisters have collaborated on an environmental piece of monumental arched branches called A Deeper Blue. Joan Carol Coventry’s broken violin altar, Skeleton Symphony, includes a note: “Music got so wild and longhair that the violin broke and the strings flew off the bow.”

Look around your home and you will likely find your own versions of an altar. Assembling and arranging objects we care for is a human urge—like singing, praying, swearing, and whistling. Although glossy consumer goods promise to deliver the cure to what ails us, true comfort is more likely found in priceless, tarnished relics of personal and family histories or nature. We instinctively make altars and shrines whenever special things are set in place on a table or shelf. Sacred spaces are made when our cherished items are displayed and endowed with magic—when we recognize their power to influence our wellbeing or help us to remember. While the opening night was festive, visiting the quiet gallery the next day on a cold, wet, and gray afternoon, I felt a certain reverence as I peered into these windows of deeply personal territory and heartfelt expression. No matter how many Day of the Dead altars you may have looked at in the past, there is a freshness to each new creation. After a tour through the exhibition, you will want to go home and arrange a few of your own special objects.

The altars are on exhibit through November 29.

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