“It has pre-Columbian roots,” explains Indra Arriaga, co-chair for the exhibit. “When the Spanish came over, one of the things that they did was to try to eradicate all of the native holidays. This was one that they couldn’t, and so it was rolled into All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.”
Thus it can be celebrated either on Nov. 1 or 2. The event is designed not only to mourn and memorialize the deaths suffered throughout the year, but to celebrate the lives lived by those people. The basic idea is that we have a relationship with the dead, and that death is a universal reality that humanity as a whole inevitably shares.
The main goal of the celebration is to avoid what is known as the third death. The first death is obviously the physical point at which your body dies, the second death is the ritualistic part wherein the body is laid to rest, and the third death, the ultimate death, is to be forgotten. The event is aimed at escaping this final death, by remembering the dead forever.
The celebration as it exists in Alaska today has been held for the past seven years at the Sunshine Mall, where it began with only a single altar. After a positive turnout, the event went on to include four altars the following year, and has grown ever since, with fifteen altars on display this year at Out North.
“We put out a call, but it’s not a traditional art show, curated with a theme or requirements. It’s open to all, and it’s free to see,” Arriaga said.
The most important part of the exhibit is undoubtedly the altars themselves. Made by and for the community, Day of the Dead altars are designed to remember either a single person, a group of people, or just a general altar for the dead, and their passing into the next life. Thus, the exhibits this year are completely different from those of last year, changing to fit the lives of those they are celebrating.
A common theme of each piece is that they incorporate the important elements of those lives into the altar. One of the beliefs engrained within the holiday is that, for the day itself, the dead come back to us and celebrate alongside us, partaking in the festivities. Thus it is customary to include favorite food or drink of the dead, flowers (usually marigolds, the scent of which guides them back), and candles so that they may find their way.
Altars at this year’s celebration include that of Gaspar Henaine, better known as Capulina, a famed Mexican comedian. This altar is adorned with traditional sugar skulls and marigolds, and a remembrance black-and-white portrait of Capulina himself. The altar was sponsored by the Mexican consulate, which usually chooses one person who has died this year (Capulina passed away in September).
Local artist Linda Lyons displayed a prominent altar centralized around her Native Alaskan heritage, including cultural food, photos, and a traditional mask as the centerpiece. An altar with a striking skeleton with arms crossed, bearing weaponry in each hand, takes the center of Tom Polowy’s piece, commemorating both of his grandfathers.
A piece by artist Angela Ramirez centers around a painting with a traditionally colorful assortment of skulls, and a hanging three-dimensional piece that utilizes a real goat skull and bike gears.
“Skulls are perfect, symbolically speaking. When a lay-person looks at a skull, they don’t know the gender or race or anything. All they know is that it’s a human being,” Ramirez said. This emphasis on death as a great equalizer is one of the unifying tenants of the holiday.
Other altars are more simplistic, offering simply photos and things that the dead loved. A young boy’s altar shows off a model car and other commemorative items.
In addition to the physical art in Out North’s gallery showcases, performance art was also open to the public on Nov. 2. From traditional dancing by a local group called Xochiquetzal Tiqun, to singing, a play put on by the students of West High’s immersion program, and even Taiko drumming by East High and UAA, the seats of Out North’s performance stage were filled.
The invitation to participate is open every year, and all are welcome to get involved, either in constructing altars in the spirit of the event, performing in the showcase, or merely enjoying the festivities as a member of the audience.
Ramirez put it succinctly, “Death takes us all. You don’t have to look forward to it, but it doesn’t have to be all bad.”