Typically, this 2-day Mexican holiday (celebrated right after Halloween) is for people to pay tribute to deceased loved ones, but they're usually the elderly — not the young. This year, the artists featured in the 17th annual Day of the Dead exhibition at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco pay tribute to the lost souls who died when they shouldn't have.
"A Promise Not to Forget," curated by father and son René and Rio Yañez, features 50 artists and is call to remember ancestors and honor those whose lives have been unnecessarily lost due to violence.
When artist Mayra Guadalupe Lopez first learned of the theme for this show, she immediately thought of the victims from the Pulse shooting in Florida.
"I thought about a night at the Stud, a local queer bar in [San Francisco] and one of the nights I had felt safe and happy and secure in who I was," Lopez told Vivala. "It was a special memory and it got me thinking about how a lot of these spaces have disco balls, how they spaces are our spaces to feel accepted, secure and carefree, where we can be our true selves. Pulse is one of those spaces and I wanted to pay homage to it and all those spaces and the community we lost in that tragedy."
For artist Alicia Cruz-Hunt (full disclosure: she's my sister), she wanted her altar to focus on the tragic deaths of students.
"I wanted to bring awareness to the issue and explore ways to look for solutions and ways to make schools safer," Cruz-Hunt said. "I also wanted to make space to think about all those lost in school violence."
The process of making an altar might seem effortless, as each one is quite breathtaking, but to formulate how each one will look, while still getting the message across is very complex.
Cruz-Hunt said that creating an alter is an organic process that develops from inception until it's dismantled because it changes as the community interacts with it.
"I knew I wanted to include a school desk," Cruz-Hunt said.
She explained why:
"A school desk is the symbol of education and learning. I wanted it to be white and covered in bright light because a place of learning should be sacred. Schools should never be considered unsafe and yet they are so I wanted the string guns in front of the desk so that you had to sort through the reality of violence before reaching the sacred space of learning. I also added red tissue paper flowers which symbolizes bloodshed in the schools."
Artist Patricia A. Montgomery collaborated with Michael Ross to create an altar that honored Black people killed at the hands of police.
Their altar centered around the Scottsboro Boys (nine black teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of raping two White American women on a train in 1931) while also the "miscarriage of justice has continued over the 80 years."
One of the most important parts of an altar, like Cruz-Hunt said, is audience participation. These altars are built especially so viewers can step inside and learn the story that is being told."There is just enough space for the viewers to walk around and read the walls and the information about these nine individuals," Montgomery said.
"Altars are important because they provide a space in time to honor our individuals that have passed away," Montgomery said. "Also they allow an individual to get in touch with their higher power or to take a moment to be quiet with yourself."
Lopez agrees that the Day of the Dead altars is a space for people to grieve and reflect on our fear of death.
"As a society I believe we have a fear of death and we tend to not want to discuss it," Lopez said. "Traditional altars are present year round, our ancestors are present in our daily lives. We can honor them, spend time with them and share with them, even though they are not physically present."
For artist Susan Matthews, building Day of the Dead altars is like meditation.
"In a sense building altars give us a way of communicating with the dead," Matthews said. "It's also a state of mind and a physical manifestation of the artist’s meditation."
Here's more images from this incredible exhibit.
"A Promise Not to Forget" is on view now until Nov. 5.
Exhibition on view Friday, October 7–Saturday, November 5, 2016.
Extended gallery hours: Tuesday–Friday 12–7pm, Saturday 11am–5pm & Sunday 11am–3pm.
SOMarts is located at: 934 Brannan Street San Francisco, CA 94103.