Nov 2, 2011

REVIEW | Death to Dollars | Mexic-Arte Museum | Austin, TX

Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin. Death to Dollars Exhibition Flyer. 2011.

Last month I visited the Mexic-Arte Museum located in down town Austin for their Death to Dollars exhibition. Although many of the pieces shown in this exhibit are meant to honor the Latino tradition, the transformation between folkloric imagery and rituals to commercial art is apparent. With the expansion of the Day of the Dead festivities now being celebrated in southern states of the United States products of mass production are more commonly seen. This includes advertisements, clothing, party supplies, and even video games. 

The Day of the Dead is an annual Latino tradition celebrated in Central and South America that can be traced back to colonial time periods. Most commonly celebrated in Mexico, the Day of the Dead rituals are not meant to be mournful but instead a joyous occasion where the living celebrate the dead. It is believed that this holiday allows the souls of the dead to visit their loved ones from beyond the grave, symbolizing the death and rebirth of the lost souls.
Mexic-Arte Museum, Death to Dollars, 2011. Display table.

My first thought upon walking into the exhibition was that the artwork displayed lacked any spiritual basis that the tradition once stood for. The first two rooms contained floating signs that were labeled “Games, Folk Art, Commercials & Advertisements, Posters & Prints, Apparel, Party Supplies, and Novelties”. Making my way towards the Folk Art I realized that the majority of the artwork shown, were categorized in the above categories and alphabetically.  Unfortunately photography was not allowed in the exhibition but similar papel picado artworks created by Kathleen Trenchard that were displayed could be seen here. Tiny three dimensional altars with animated skeletons dancing around where displayed in the “Party Supplies” section along with oversized balloons featuring female skull heads with bows. The opposing walls were covered with black light posters and t-shirts all covered in Day of the Dead symbolic figures.

The following room stressed the expansion of commercializing the holiday with their display of  "Commercials and Advertisements" along with "Games". Advertisements displayed on the walls were highly sexualized Day of the Dead skeletons typically drinking some sort of tequila. Original huh? Yeah I didn't think so either. I tried to play the "Wedding Reception" Day of the Dead themed video game at the opposite end of the room but quickly became agitated with the fear of my character getting put in a white dress. I had to get out of there...

It wasn't until I made my way into the last room that I got a sense of what the Day of the Dead tradition was originally all about. Community Altars of lost loved ones were displayed along with music, video, and short stories. Altars such as these were originally displayed at grave sites to honor the dead, but with the popularization of the holiday they have become artistic productions. Marigolds or "Flowers of the Dead" are made out of orange paper and displayed on each altar. "Offerings" consisting of the dead's favorite food, drink, and personal belongings were also displayed. I was drawn to one particular altar belonging to a young girl named Nelofar. Because she had "accidentally" been killed during War it was titled "I Come From A Land Of Tragedy Called Afghanistan". It was accompanied by a short story her father had written describing the events that took place before and after his daughters death. along with a few photographs and crayon drawings were a couple pairs of children's shoes. After viewing this particular altar I could see why families participate in this spiritual tradition in hopes of "reviving" the souls of their loved ones. 

-Yael Palma


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