We were very disappointed that art works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera held in the private Museo Delores Olmedo in Mexico City were in Paris at the time of our visit. What we did see, apart from Impressionist art works from Paris, was this extraordinary Day of the Dead exhibit. Parisian art scene had been rendered in Mexican style skeletons. Famous artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and others were depicted in tableaus with great creativity and humour.
We saw graves that were mounds of dirt with simple crosses or markers and elaborate houses for the dead.
Kristin Norget describes the grave as a home for both the dead and the living. At Day of the Dead when families picnic in the cemetery and hold vigils by the graves, she suggests the living are both hosts and guests of the dead in this house of the dead. She suggests the grave is a familiar and intimate place, a place of memory.
In Oaxaco grieving and remembering are not solitary acts. Is fear of death in our own culture partly the fear of disappearing from the minds of the living? Would a collective act of remembering such as Day of the Dead make us less afraid of dying?
One of the ideas we were interested in is whether Los Dias de Muerte is evidence a unique Mexican attitude to death: the Mexican who laughs and dances with death, who is not afraid of death but instead venerates it.
The history of Mexico is rife with bloodshed and death for the poor and indigenous. The anthropologist Carlos Navarrete has suggested that this idea about death developed in the 1930s and 1940s in a postrevolutionary time when the Mexican was searching for his roots. Intellectuals like the writer Octavia Paz (see his quote at the beginning of this blog) and artist Diego Rivera, dramatized and romanticized a typical but perhaps mythical Mexican “character”. We now know it’s important to question this romantic stereotype about an Mexican approach to death.
We are surrounded by many quirky examples of Mexican black humour. We wonder are the living being reminded of death or have the dead been given life?
The skull or dancing skeleton is at the heart of popular iconography that laughs at the rich and powerful or the fickle nature of fate and the fragility of life itself. So many Day of the Dead rituals invoke colour, sensory pleasure, vibrancy and chaotic energy, music and dancing- the exact opposite of what we usually associate with death: silence, darkness, fear, grimness, fear and a subdued gloomy, serious mood.