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The essence of “Día de Muertos” is hardly limited to Mexican culture. In fact, it has always been a mixture of different cultures, such as indigenous Zapotec, Aztec, and Purepecha traditions, with Hispanic religious holidays. Today it is no different. Día de Muertos is a constantly evolving tradition that welcomes new interpretations.
In this edition of “Día de Muertos” NDG, the altars illustrate this rich diversity. While some altars exhibit the intimate and personal characteristics of traditional national altars, others offer us interpretations that emphasize storytelling.
As some designers show, the altar can be used as a way to redefine traditional symbols and place them in a different context. Others prove that altars also have the potential to be a space for political activism, as they help us make connections between the past and the present and are the artifacts of our collective memory.
Curator of the exhibition
We dedicate this offering to women and girls who are victims of femicide. We consider femicide to be the most heinous crime there is because it is gender-based. This means that women are murdered just for being women and because most homicides are committed by men.
Mexico is the country with the most femicides on the continent with 3,357 femicides in 2018, or 9 women murdered per day, compared to 1 woman murdered every 48 hours in Canada. Although the gap is enormous, both countries bear an over-representation of murdered indigenous women and girls, most of whom come from communities historically neglected by the justice system. To this end, it should be noted that in Mexico 95% of femicides go unpunished, because discrimination and gender violence are systemic.
Beyond the numbers, we want to show our solidarity with the victims of such injustice, moreover, we want to put an end to this dehumanization that prevails in society. This is why we want to give a face and a name to the women who were murdered with impunity, because they had a life, a family, dreams, ambitions and NONE of these women wanted to die.
Objects with symbolic power make up this traditional altar. While cempasuchil (marigold) ﬂowers and candles trace the path of souls and purify their journey, other types of figures such as calaveras (skulls) remind us of the closeness of life and death. Ultimately, these are joyful celebrations. For this reason, it is important to “spoil” the departed with what they enjoyed in life.
At this altar, the hobbies of those who are no longer with us are celebrated, such as numismatics and painting. It is also an act of love. Their favourite foods and drinks nourish and welcome them home.
This altar celebrates the memory of Eduardo de Arcega and Eva.
This altar pays homage to my grandmother Minerva and it is a celebration of the memory of our ancestors; it’s a way for me to remember them and teach my daughter that her Great Abuela taught me.
In the Zapotec tradition, recieving relatives as they return every November is a great event that includes going to the cemetery a few days before to clean the graves, and to prepare a large home offering to receive them. It is a great celebration and a feast. For my grandmother, it was very important to set up an altar in memory of her great-grandmother, her in-laws and her close family, and it is precisely through these rituals that a link is forged between her and me.
Since the great Xahuela died this year, nostalgia led me to participate in the festivities of Dia de Muertos here in Montreal. The objects of the offering represent what I keep from my grandmother: her simplicity, her frankness and the bravery of her Istmeña woman’s soul. The other elements are traditional from the altars of the Istmo region in Oaxaca, such as the vertical form, banana leaves, and the festive xicalpestle. The altar is portable and symbolic in its simplicity (made mainly with cardboard). The beings that are part of my memory tree – with or without photos are present in the bonds of corn-leaves which inhabit this intimate altar adorned in the skirts of an ancestor istemeñaaltar.
While I was building this, I found myself filling out an illustrative postcard of this longing for my grandparents, like a distant memory of a beloved childhood tale, from which I managed to convey only a reflection. The altar is, therefore, dedicated, with much love, to my Xahuela, the great Na ‘Minerva (1921-2019).
This altar honours the water. Water is life – it purifies, cleanses and purges. The artist Leticia Vera uses the altar as a mnemonic means to evoke her childhood memories, where her mother left glasses of water as an offering to the souls who lived in her home. Water is a central symbolic component of the Día de Muertos altars because it satisfies the thirst of travelling souls. Here the artist presents water as an entity / ﬂuid with its own spirit, offered in a metaphorical sense to quench the country’s thirst for justice.
In this contemporary reinterpretation of the Dia de Muertos tradition, the altar is white. This inspiration comes from the traditional white altars of the region of Huaquechula, Puebla. This may be in contrast to the other altars in the exhibition where colours predominate, but the Día de Muertos tradition is vast and expressed in different forms in each region of Mexico.
Offerings in Mexican homes on Día de Muertos are traditionally dedicated to deceased family members and loved ones. Images of the people we want to remember stand next to some of their personal items and things they loved in life.
This altar honours the memory of family members, but it is also a way to share their stories with future generations. The setting up of the altar allows us to share with our children who our parents and grandparents were. Living far from Mexico, the altar has become a way of communicating with our traditions and dealing with the nostalgia of our culture.
This altar is also a product of the meeting of Peruvian and Mexican cultures.
This altar honours the memory of: Victoria Borjón, Cosme García, Altagracia Plata, Gregorio Herrera, Camilo Hernández, Paz Díaz, Guadalupe Gedovius, Rodolfo Pérez de Tejada, Patricia Terán, Alfonso Torres
In honour of Lesvy Berlín (1995-2017) and all missing women in Mexico, this altar highlights systemic gender-based violence in the country. Lesvy was murdered in 2017 by her boyfriend. Her death sparked a series of public protests in Mexico. To date, Lesvy’s murderer has been convicted of femicide, but that is not the reality in most cases of gender-based violence.
During the first quarter of the year, at least 1,119 femicides were committed and the majority of families are still demanding justice. On August 16, 2019, one of the biggest feminist protests took place in Mexico City. Thousands of women have taken to the streets of the capital looking for answers from the authorities. This altar supports these events and commemorates the lives of all women who no longer have a voice in the chapter.
The festivity of Dia de Muertos is a collective practice of very special spiritual and social significance. The festivities begin early, usually buying ﬂowers at local markets and cleaning graves at the cemetery. Families prepare traditional dishes to share, like moles and tortillas. Photographer Linda Rutenberg offers us a window into these family moments. Through her lens, she brought together the places and people who participate in this celebration in the region of Oaxaca, Mexico.
The Día de Muertos celebration is not limited to commemorating family members, but sometimes altars are dedicated to public figures. It is a way of honouring their heritage and celebrating their life.
This altar is lovingly dedicated to Alicia del Valle, Alejandra’s grandmother who passed away, to continue to share her love with her loved ones. The altar also commemorates the great composer and bassist of the Botellita de Jerez group: Armando Vega, great Mexican musician, poet and screenwriter. In the same spirit, this offer pays tribute to the great Mexican singer and artist: José José. In recognition, Alejandra and Marisa pay tribute to these public figures alongside other family members.
This branch contains ribbons that commemorate a loved one.
Although it can be said that the tradition of Día de Muertos is celebrated in many parts of Mexico, some families adapt and transform it into their own. This is the case with Maru. After making her home in Canada, she looked for a way to include non-Mexicans in her altar at home. She discovered that the relationship with death was a very personal and cultural one. This is how she came up with the idea of creating a branch where guests could tie a ribbon in honour of a deceased loved one. For Maru, the celebration of Día de Muertos is focused on sharing and inclusion.
Traditional altar from the region of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Fall markets in Montreal turn into a visual feast. Farmers pay homage to the bountiful harvest of the season with “altars” made up of pumpkins and corn on haystacks. Like “Día de Muertos,” October in Quebec is a month of giving thanks to nature and starting a new cycle.
Traditions are best understood when sharing. At PAAL, we believe that we can create a space of empathy when we exchange between different cultures.
We invite you to participate in the Dia de Muertos tradition by bringing an object or a photo that you would like to offer to commemorate and honour someone’s memory.