Ofrendas are offerings laid out for dead family members and friends during the period Dia de Muertos, Mexico’s annual remembrance of the dead, when the souls of the dead return for a brief reunion with the living. Ofrendas can consist of the deceased’s favorite foods and spirits, personal photographs, sugar skulls, pan de muerto, flowers, incense, and candles, all displayed on altars, vibrant and beautiful.
At the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, there is an Ofrendas exhibit beginning in October each year. Local Mexican, Mexican-American, Latinx, and Chicano artists create ofrendas that are both personal and political, historical and modern. They remember groups of oppressed and forgotten peoples, such as immigrants separated from their families; honor Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera; and even create elaborate offerings for their own family members and personal tribulations.
The theme for this year’s ofrendas exhibit centered on the monarch butterfly, a creature long important to Dia de Muertos, for the monarch migrates to Mexico each fall. The butterfly is also a well known as a symbol of rebirth, and the Desert Botanical Garden is brimming with them in the fall as they flutter between bright red and orange desert flowers.
While there were so many gorgeous ofrendas, I fell in love with these two. I was drawn to how two different artists used starkly different mediums to connect to death in a meaningful way, one that has roots in pre-hispanic Mexico, the colonial period, and that remains resilient today.
Resurrection in Art: The Ritual Art to Celebrate Innocent Souls
Cristina Cardenas is a Latina artist born in Guadalajara, Mexico who currently lives in Tuscon, Arizona. She combines multiple cultural references and classic styles while overlapping personal and traditional imagery. She says of her ofrenda:
For centuries, the ritual of painting portraits of recently deceased children and young girls has been carried out as apart of a larger ritual that, among other things, attempts to transform grief into joy, and to celebrate the entrance ‘of a pure young soul into a new life.’
There is a period within Dia de Muertos, writes Sarah Troop, from the afternoon of October 31 to November 1, to welcome back Los Angelitos, or the children who have died. As Cardenas depicts through her art, it is a period of transformation: children are reunited with their loved ones. It is a period of joy, as these young souls are believed to be free of all eternal misery. It is a period of respite for those who grieve for their children year round, quietly in their hearts: they are no longer alone, for their community, both living and dead, lifts them up.
La Santisima Muerte
El Vaquero Muerto works leather, marks with paint, and builds into this world those things which are of another place. He travels the Southwest, spending much of his time in San Diego and Phoenix. He lives to create, to share, to speak and listen and to experience.
La Santisima Muerte, or ‘the Skinny Lady,’ is the Death Saint. She welcomes all and rejects none, for each shall come to her in the end. This year has been a transformative time for me. I traveled to Japan, I created more leather artworks than at any other time in my life, I went to Burning Man seeking inspiration and I fell in love with an amazing woman. I confronted my sadness and loss and learned to let go, to find beauty and comfort and passion in the people around me. La Santisima Muerte is my expression of all of this. She is death, but she is also beauty and metamorphosis and hope.
Whereas Cardenas imparts her art with history and ritual, El Vaquero Muerto’s art is deeply personal and rooted in his own symbolic death and transformation. La Santisima Muerte, also known as Santa Muerte, is also a radical figure, one who speaks to the resilience of the Mexican people to retain their culture and heritage. She undermines Catholic doctrine as a Mexican folk saint, hearkening back to the pre-hispanic Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec Queen of the Underworld.