DIA de los Muertos: a special exhibit of ofrendas at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Arts / Article

One ofrenda featured the work of a high-school teacher’s 12th graders’ skull self-portraits, prompted by the question, “What would you like to leave behind as a legacy?”

In celebration of the traditional Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos, the DIA sponsored a special installation of 10 traditional and nontraditional “ofrendas,” which are altars created by the living to honor and memorialize the dead. The week-long special exhibit culminated on Sunday, November 3rd, with an artist talk that featured all 11 participants in the installation. The subject matter of the ofrendas was diverse, as each artist conveyed a unique take on the tradition, which is typically a means for celebrating the life and mourning the loss of family or close friends, but can truly be extended to memorialize anyone no longer among the living.

The artist panel took place in the Diego Rivera courtyard.

The artist panel took place in the Diego Rivera courtyard.

Some of the less traditional approaches included an ofrenda to pets by Flor Bermejo Walker titled, “Love You Back,” which commemorates some of her own pets, and domestic animals in general. There was also “Sw33ttooth” by Shaina Kasztelan—the panel’s youngest participant—which staged her collection of animal skulls, embellished in an ultra-bedazzled manner.

"Sw33ttooth" by Shaina

Detail from “Sw33ttooth” by Shaina Kasztelan.

"A Woman&squot;s Song of Water," by Catherine Keyes paid tribute to all the human and animal life lost in the Gulf of Mexico due to the deep water Horizon catastrophe.

“A Woman’s Song of Water,” by Catherine Keyes paid tribute to all the human and animal life lost in the Gulf of Mexico due to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Some of the ofrendas were more complex and stayed closer to the traditional format. “Ethereal,” by Kia Itchel Arriaga, employed the complicated ritual of seed arrangement on the floor; drawing upon the ancient Aztec tradition and fused with the colonialist Catholic influence, it created the Dia de los Muertos still celebrated lavishly in Mexico today. “Los Valientes,” by Alana Rodriguez, was one of the most detailed ofrendas on display: a tribute to war veterans, which included her father and grandfather. Two different ofrendas chose immigrants as their subject matter, with “Passages,” by Veronica A. Paiz, staging an ofrenda in a canoe, and another that highlighted the traumatic process of border crossing from Mexico.

Artist and Navy veteran Alana Rodriguez (left) paid tribute to military veterans, including those in her own family, with, "Los Valientes," and artist and activist Maria (right) honored the unknown people lost in border crossing, with one of the most powerful ofrendas in the exhibit.

Artist and Navy veteran Alana Rodriguez (left) paid tribute to military veterans, including those in her own family, with “Los Valientes,” and artist and activist Maria (right) honored the unknown people lost in border crossing, with one of the most powerful ofrendas in the exhibit.

"Los Valientes"

“Los Valientes.”

The ofrenda for unknown border crossings.

The ofrenda for unknown border crossings.

"Etheral" by

“Etheral” by Kia Itchel Arriaga.

"Adios Aurelio" by Juan Javier and Gabrielle Pescador, commemorating former Detroit Tiger Aurelio Rodriguez, who was fatally hit by a car in 2000.

“Adios Aurelio” by Juan Javier and Gabrielle Pescador, commemorating former Detroit Tiger Aurelio Rodriguez, who was fatally hit by a car in 2000.

Overall, the work on display was absolutely breathtaking, and the temporary nature of the exhibit really afforded viewers the opportunity to contemplate the fleeting nature of life and the mystery of death. What a lovely effort by the DIA to draw out a thriving cultural scene at work in the heart of Detroit’s community!

The Detroit Institute of Arts: 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; www.dia.org