In Pilsen, art becomes a matter of life and death

The National Museum of Mexican Art holds its yearly Day of the Dead exhibit

By Ana Klimchynskaya

The first room I walk into in Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art is full of skeletons. No, the museum didn’t decide to use its exhibition space to store Halloween props. These skeletons are part of its annual exhibition on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that falls on November 1. Like Halloween, it draws its roots from ancient beliefs and festivals. As a way to both remember the dead and accept our own mortality, Día de los Muertos is the product of Christian and ancient South American beliefs, and the exhibit examines all of the traditions of this holiday centered around these two aspects.

The Day of the Dead, to those who have heard of it, probably brings to mind skeletons that, upon first glance, look like something from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride or the undead in Pirates of the Caribbean: women in fancy dresses and men in top hats who look like normal people except that they have skulls and bones instead of faces and flesh. The museum’s exhibit features these skeletons performing a variety of daily (or not so daily) tasks like writing, playing the guitar, staring off into the distance, and killing each other.

You’d think that since skeletons are already dead, the idea of them killing each other sounds a bit ridiculous, but there is a deeper meaning to these displays. The skeletons do not represent dead people. Instead, they are suggestions that one day we will all die. No matter what we do—from the safest, most everyday activities like eating, to the unsafe and unusual, like engaging in a war—we will all one day transform into skeletons, reduced to only bones and dust. In the long run, we are all these skeletons, these dead people, and the holiday’s tradition of putting it out there so bluntly is a way of accepting the fact.

Another important part of the holiday and the exhibit are the ofrendas, or altars. The Day of the Dead is the one day that the spirits of the dead come back to Earth to visit their loved ones, and these altars are meant to welcome the spirits back. They usually contain the dead’s favorite food and drinks, their possessions, bright flowers and candles that guide the spirit through the darkness, and symbols of their hobbies and interests.

This year’s incarnation of the exhibit added its own touch to the usual display by using the holiday’s traditions to remember and celebrate the history of Mexico, which gained its independence exactly 200 years ago in 1810. One of the altars, for example, is an homage to the courageous women who participated in Mexico’s independence movement. The altar is made of three stages, all of which portray women (in traditional Día de los Muertos skeleton form, of course) writing about the revolution, holding guns, being shot by a firing squad, and participating at the first revolutionary meeting.

A large room is dedicated to the social problems that the independence of 1810 had failed to fix—namely, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. The room features skeletons of upper-class people riding away on a train that the poor skeletons clearly built but do not have enough money for. They can only gaze at it longingly as it drives away. The poignancy of this scene is deepened by the fact that all the individuals are skeletons—another reminder that, despite the disparity of social classes, everyone dies, and death does not discriminate based on social class.

Strolling through the neighborhood of Pilsen, where the museum is located, I had a chance to reflect on social classes once again. Pilsen is a neighborhood of immigrants, and everything about it says so: the Mexican cafes, the immigrant rights mural painted on a wall. It’s almost as if the exhibit extended out of the museum and into the neighborhood, as reminders that this Mexican community celebrated Día de los Muertos were ubiquitous, from the altars in store windows to the skeletons painted throughout the streets to the sugar skulls for sale in stores.

The rights of immigrants, their place in our society, and the DREAM act are all part of our nation’s current conversation. The Day of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art was a reminder of difference and diversity, but also of the fact that, although Día de los Muertos is part of a particular culture, its main idea—the acceptance of death as the one thing that unites us all—is universal.