An altar adorned with papel piccado (festive cut tissue paper) sits strewn with candles, edible calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls), fishing rods and lures, potato chips, hard liquor, and a pack of cigarettes. But fishermen haven’t snuck into church for late night fun. This altar, or ofrenda, was constructed at California State University, Dominguez Hills for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in honor of the late Rodney King.
In years past, alumna and former staff member Victoria Almeida (Class of ’92, B.A., fine art) has made private tributes to loved ones, but she constructed this ofrenda as part of a “Day of the Dead Altars” exhibit being displayed concurrently with the national touring exhibit “El Caballo: The Horse in Mexican Folk Art,” and “Student Showcase: Studio Art,” featuring paintings by students in the Art and Design Department, in the University Art Gallery from Nov. 1 through 28. The exhibits will be kicked off with a Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead) celebration on Thursday, Nov. 1, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Related article: Art Gallery Features El Caballo in Mexican Folk Art and Day of Dead Altars
Almeida isn’t sure whether young college students will remember the late African American, who was beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991. But King, who earlier this year drowned, made an impression on her, and she hopes visitors will get a sense of who he was as a human being.
“I think of him as…this walking miracle. He became such an icon for change within the police department,” Almeida said.
In a further departure from the traditional Día de los Muertos stair-stepped altar, Los Angeles-based mixed media artist Edith Abeyta has installed a predominately two-dimensional interpretive tree-like structure made from patches of T-shirts, reportedly stained with pig’s blood, and hung with calaveras constructed of newspaper.
Perhaps these aren’t the typical Día de los Muertos ofrendas, but CSU Dominguez Hills professor of modern languages Miguel Dominguez, who is an expert on Mexican folk art and has been constructing traditional ofrendas for more than 30 years, is okay with that.
“It’s dynamic … and I wouldn’t even stop it. We could be purists, but that’s the way some of our traditions started. We didn’t even know because we came in at the end. I can see somebody 500 years ago saying this is all wrong. But you can’t hold it back,” Dominguez said of evolving practices that become folk traditions.
Over several days and much rearranging, Dominguez’s own ofrenda has evolved as well. Finally, he settled on a particular arrangement, which includes some of his late father’s tools, a metate (reed mat), a puzzle—because his late mother liked to build them—and a tiny chair.
“The person comes to visit for the day. That’s why many ofrendas have chairs, water and favorite foods of loved ones,” Dominguez explained. “It could be presented as a banquet or as art.”
Careful to make the distinction, Dominguez pointed out that while church altars are used for worship, Día de los Muertos altars are not. Rather, they are a way to remember passed loved ones.
“But these are not mournful tributes,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful way to tribute someone without being sad,” said Kathy Zimmerer, director of the University Art Gallery, who has collaborated with Dominguez on Día de los Muertos exhibits since 1992.
Dominguez is planning to add food items and a trail of live marigolds, the traditional flower of Día de los Muertos, to help guide the spirit of his late parents to his altar. He’ll add those on Wednesday so they’ll be fresh for the Noche de Muertos celebration on Thursday. He’s planning to refresh the flowers throughout the duration of the exhibit.
Students from Dominguez’ Literature of Spanish America (SPA-456) class have composed calaveras literarias, which are quatrain poems written for the Day of the Dead but intended to humorously criticize the living.
“It kind of like a roast. One of [the calaveras] is about me. Because…everybody is fair game. The thing that the students picked out about me is that I wear guayaberas,” Dominguez said of his signature Mexican wedding shirts.
The Noche de Muertos celebration on November 1 will feature a display of the students’ calaveras literarias, as well as luminarias. Traditional candy, Día de los Muertos bread, and hot chocolate will be served in the gallery’s lobby, and visitors are invited to dress up in costumes and calavera (skull) make-up.
The Multicultural Center will provide free materials in the Palm Courtyard of the Loker Student Union from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., for students to make their own altars, paper marigolds, clay skulls and papel piccados. The student made altars will be moved in a special procession to the University Art Gallery in time for the Noche de Muertos celebration.
The exhibition and supporting events are presented by the College of Arts and Humanities and co-sponsored by the Department of Art and Design, the Department of Modern Languages, Hermanas Unidas, El Espiritu de Nuestra Futuro, Lambda Theta Phi, and the Multicultural Center.
For more information, contact the Multicultural Center at (310) 243-2519 or the University Art Gallery at (310) 243-3334.