Dead in the ground, alive in the heart, expressed in this room.
Understood by … well, not everyone.
“I sent a picture of one of the pieces to a friend of mine, and she said, ‘I don’t see the point, I think it is very morbid and I don’t appreciate it,’” says Roberto Rico, one of 11 artists contributing to City Hall’s current Flores para el Dia de los Muertos exhibit in the Chamber Gallery, in a run-up to the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday, November 1-2.
Celebrated primarily in the Mexican culture, Day of the Dead has macabre touches—skull death masks, gravesites, crosses held aloft—but is ultimately a festive remembrance of deceased friends and loved ones.
“I said, ‘Well, I can see your point,’” says Rico, who was born and raised in Mexico. “But where I come from, we realize death is always right behind our right shoulder, the only thing we cannot escape from. So in the Mexican culture, death is our friend. The more we look at it that way, the more we can be thankful for the permission to stay alive.”
Beyond providing perhaps the most concise explanation of the holiday’s spirit and purpose, Rico painted two pieces for the exhibit, the title of which translates to “Flowers for the Day of the Dead.” Unlike Rico, fellow artist Alexander Huerta was initially uncomfortable with the theme.
“It was a bit of a struggle and it frightened me a little,” says the California-born Huerta, whose parents, both deceased, were Mexican but also born in the U.S. “I approached the subject of death with a totally American viewpoint, that death is sad or something is missing. Doing this show, I had to change to a celebratory thought process from a mourning process.”
Among the traditions of the holiday—which can be traced back to an Aztec festival devoted to the goddess Mictecacihuatl—celebrants build altars honoring the departed using skulls made of sugar, and the dead’s favorite food, drink and belongings, leaving them as gifts at the cemetery, where they pray and sing.
As “Flores” in the exhibit title indicates, flowers are a vital element of the holiday’s festivities, particularly the golden-hued marigolds that adorn altars, so they are also central to the dozen images in the display.
Represented in various media and material, the marigold is most prominently depicted in Sophia McMahan’s “From Death Comes Life,” a large, papier-mâché marigold rising from a black, skull-painted base. Sprinkled with brown, dying leaves, it blossoms into a life-affirming symbol of vibrant green and pink, dotted with glitter.
Specifically honoring a departed loved one, Sandra Ward’s multidimensional woodcarving, “Bisabuela,” portrays the stately dignity of her late great-grandmother of Oaxaca, Mexico. In Adolfo Gonzalez’s striking, slim-paneled “Santuario,” a colorfully rendered, death-masked woman resembles a comic-book vixen, simultaneously lovely and funereal, above her a small glass enclosure containing a mini skull garnished with flowers. Likewise, Theresa Lucero’s “Marisol Marigold” portrays a skeletal-faced young woman with long, flowing blue hair, wearing a crown of flowers.
More directly expressing the traditions, Rico’s “Noche de Muertos,” done in acrylic and shellacked to a shiny gloss, takes us into the cemetery ceremony, as women in shawls stand over a grave under a night sky aglow in candles and stars, the deceased’s spirit discreetly rising from the corner of the tableau.
“The spirit is saying, ‘I’m here, I’m in the night, I’m in the flowers,’” Rico says. Across the gallery, in Rico’s “Flores para mis Muertos,” the artist inserts a younger version of himself into the image, holding flower bouquets above a woman in a glamorous, almost Mardi Gras-style skull mask, touched by red lips and makeup.
Watch where you step—artwork is at your feet as well. “Flowerbed,” a mixed-media piece by Justin Favela, conveys that image as a casket adornment, an array of paper flowers in a rich rainbow of red, white, yellow, pink, red, purple, orange and turquoise. Untitled, a piece by Javier Sanchez is a sprawl of eight squares of dried, crushed marigolds, each anchored by a single candle.
Compellingly, Huerta’s mixed-media “Don’t Buy Me Flowers When I’m Dead” contains an image of his mother, who passed in 1990, covering a black alley wall, as windows in the surrounding building are peppered with figures cut from old magazines, all in death masks. Children frolic in celebration on the street below, and a man paints graffiti of Huerta’s title on a nearby wall.
“My mom, she used to tell us, ‘Buy me flowers now, don’t buy them when I’m dead—how will I appreciate them when I’m dead?’ It was a recurring theme,” Huerta says, noting that after procrastinating on the piece, he finally grew comfortable with it.
“As you become an adult, you learn that all your fears need to be walked through—that’s the truth about all fears,” Huerta says. “This taught me that I’m as free as I think I am. Death is no longer that scary, sad subject for me. I try to get the most out of every day.”
Flores Para el Dia de los Muertos
7 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon-Thu through Nov. 7, City Hall Chamber Gallery, 495 S. Main St., free, 229-1012, ArtsLasVegas.org.