Dia de Los Muertos, as it'92s celebrated in Birmingham at Bare Hands Gallery, is sort of like a family reunion '97 but instead of baby pictures, small talk and your aunt'92s potato salad, there are death masks, mariachi, tamales and tequila. It'92s like a gallery opening with a parade and a funeral pyre, a mixed media assemblage of ecstatic grief and art.
The sixth Day of the Dead celebration at Bare Hands is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 2. The nonprofit gallery, located at 109 Richard Arrington Blvd. South, will host five-time Grammy winner and conjunto music dynamo Flaco Jimenez as well as a local Mariachi band. La Guadalupano, a local dance troupe, will perform Mexican folk dance followed by the Ultra Hip Revue performing Dia de los Muertos-inspired bellydance. The gallery and its courtyard will be transformed into a hall of altars, and the celebration will extend into the adjacent alleyway.
The festivities begin around 1 p.m. with children'92s crafts and bilingual story time in the courtyard, followed by the tolling of bells, the beating of drums, poetry reading and singing. During a '93memorial roll call'94 that begins at 5 p.m., Birmingham poet Matt Layne will read aloud the names of deceased loved ones and then festival attendees will join a mock funeral procession to be finished with fireworks. Mariachi music will add to the fiesta-like atmosphere in which the living are supposed to celebrate the dead. Flaco Jiminez & his Tex-Mex Band will take the stage at 7 p.m. and perform two sets. The intermission program will be '93Pyro Salto,'94 a special Dia de los Muertos fire performance.
The way of the day
In Mexico, the '93Day of the Dead'94 is a major holiday: the festive celebrations of El Dia de los Muertos suggest a fairly sanguine cultural attitude toward death. Tradition says that if you build an altar of remembrance for deceased loved ones on Nov. 1 and 2 then their spirits can return and celebrate with the living during those special days.
The modern Mexican celebrations of Dia de los Muertos date back to Mesoamerican culture of the 14th century, when Aztec peoples celebrated the lives of children and as well as the memories of dead family members. The goddess Mictecacihuatl was honored as the '93Lady of the Dead,'94 a benevolent spirit whose job it was to preside over the bones of those who had died. The festivities started in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar '96 about August for us '96 and continued for several weeks. Human skulls were ordinary fixtures in rituals related to life, death and rebirth. A few centuries later, Catholics co-opted the holiday, moving it closer to the Nov. 1 and 2 feasts of All Saints'92 Day and All Souls'92 Day. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is still widely celebrated '96 there are parades in the form of mock funeral processions, '93family reunions'94 between living and dead, grave decorations, candlelit ceremonies, music, dancing and more.
Bare Hands began the local tradition back in 2003, when artist Tracy Martin and a few close friends turned the gallery'92s courtyard into a massive altar for Martin'92s late father, the photographer James '93Spider'94 Martin. The walls were covered in original artwork and photos by both father and daughter, as well as plenty of personal effects '97 travel mementos, letters, books and more. As is customary in traditional Mexican celebrations of the holiday, there were also ofrendas, or offerings, of tequila, beer and favorite foods, all laid out alongside garlands of marigolds and bright-burning candles throughout the courtyard.
The following year, Bare Hands expanded the celebration by inviting other artists and members of the community to create their own altars or to add to '93Memory Walls'94 inside the gallery. Particularly with the increasing Hispanic population in Birmingham, gallery director Wendy Jarvis saw the event as an opportunity to expand the gallery'92s mission of cultural outreach. Her vision '96 shared with Tracy Martin, artist Craig Legg and numerous other artists and volunteers '97 has paid off.
'93It'92s like a gift from Spider, really," Jarvis says. "This has grown from a celebration of Spider into a homecoming, a major community event. It has become a way for us to reach out to the Hispanic community and really connect with them."
For the 2004 celebration, gallery volunteers took printed invitations to a few Hispanic organizations, but Hispanic turnout was still relatively low. The following year, they had the invitations translated into Spanish, which helped to change the demographic of attendees, but Dia De Los Muertos 2006 marked a turning point for the festival in terms of organization.
'93In year four, we met with people at the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA), gave them our information, had them translate our invitation and really got them involved,'94 Jarvis says.
According to Karen Duvdevani, a licensed professional counselor who works at HICA, the Hispanic community'92s response to the festival has grown considerably in the past few years. Duvdevani runs a local support group for Latino women, some of whom built small altars for the 2006 and 2007 celebrations. This year, women from the HICA group will also be at the celebration selling handmade crafts and tambourines. Some of the women have also contributed ideas and materials to making a much larger altar that will be on display at Bare Hands.
'93For Birmingham to have something like this is extraordinary and wonderful,'94 Duvdevani says. '93People are very excited because it takes them back. The altar that we'92re building, all of it comes from women in this group '96 the ideas, the material. Doing something like this, it was a tradition that they celebrated in their country, but that they have never done here. It'92s one of those things '96 for whatever reason, because of all the changes that come with arriving in this country, it'92s a tradition that they didn'92t continue until now.'94
A few weeks ago, representatives from Bare Hands shared the HICA booth at Fiesta, the Hispanic arts and culture festival held in Linn Park on Oct. 18. Volunteers gave out hundreds of invitations to Dia de Los Muertos'a0 '96 in English and Spanish '97 to festivalgoers. Increased Hispanic attendance at Bare Hands'92 Day of the Dead celebration potentially represents a hallmark of cultural integration: Even as non-Hispanics adopt elements of this Mexican tradition, the Hispanic community is welcomed into the local art world by participation in the show.
'93The primary mission of the gallery is to champion contemporary Alabama artists and this kind of multimedia art event accomplishes that too,'94 Jarvis says. '93HICA has been such a wonderful partner to the festival. What they'92ve done, we think, has really legitimized us to the Hispanic community. They have made it clear that Dia de Los Muertos is a sincere, genuine effort by our artists to reach out to another culture through celebration.'94
Artists whose work will be featured at the Day of the Dead celebration include Tracy Martin, Craig Legg, Celeste Labourg, Grant Tatum, Bradford Daly, Tracie Noles-Ross, Olivia Preston, Amy McClure, Wendi Flowers, Doug Baulos, Pinky Bass, Jane Marsall, Shea Goodwin, Kay Vinson, Julia Peerson Carpenter, Amy Peterson, Paul Godbey, Christine Roy, Mikul Holliman and Kristen Farmer Hall.
The art and the myriad altars included in the show are not macabre. The ubiquitous skeletons in Day of the Dead iconography are not ghouls but grinning mascots from beyond the grave, each meant to signify that a person'92s spirit doesn'92t die when his body does and nor does his relationship with his loved ones end. Artists participating in this show have adopted and adapted Mexican symbolism for their altars and shrines, but also added personal effects. The result is that on Nov. 2, Bare Hands Gallery is transformed into a mixed-media memorial with a fiesta-like atmosphere to which the whole community is invited.
The Dia de Los Muertos celebration at Bare Hands is scheduled for 1-10 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2. The gallery is located at 109 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. South (21st St. South). Call 324-2124 or visit www.barehandsgallery.org.