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The painting "La Pistola y el Corazon (Gun and heart)" by George Yepes.

"La Pistola y el Corazon (Gun and heart)" by George Yepes is part of the Weisman's exhibit "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge."

A dance of life and death

By Pauline Oo

Published on November 3, 2004

Scattered around the wedding dress are black-and-white photos of a woman--in her youth and in her later years with her husband--along with jewelry, small plates of food, skulls and skeletal figures, an embroidered handkerchief, and large vases of Calla lilies.

To commemorate Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) on Tuesday, November 2, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum commissioned local artist Eduardo Gutierrez to create a traditional ofrenda (offering or altar). The 6-by-6-feet temporary installation, on exhibit through November 14, is dedicated to his deceased mother.

Dia de los muertos, a Mexican tradition with roots dating back to the Aztec civilization, is a time when families remember the souls of friends and loved ones who have died. Cemetery visits--to clean headstones, light candles, and place flowers, especially marigolds--are a common practice, as is building an ofrenda in the home. Today, too, most people in major Mexican cities celebrate the day much as they celebrate Halloween--with candies and costumes.

Honoring the dead

Based on the Mexican Aztec calendar, Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) fell roughly at the end of July or the beginning of August. But in Mexico's post-conquest era, Spanish priests moved the ritual to coincide with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve. As a result, Mexicans celebrate the festival during the first two days of November.

Those days also mark two Roman Catholic holidays: All Saints Day (November 1), which honors all saints who attained beatific vision, and All Souls Day (November 2) which commemorates the faithful departed or baptized Christians who have died. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, prayers of the faithful on earth during All Souls Day will help move the souls from purgatory to heaven.

And just like Halloween, skeletons and skulls are symbolic during Dia de los muertos. How did they become prominent symbols for this festival? How much do current thoughts about life and death differ from ancient times? Juanita Garciagodoy, author of the book, Digging the Days of the Dead, will answer these questions and others related to honoring our dead in a slide lecture on Thursday, November 4, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The Weisman is hosting Garciagodoy's talk, "Life-Death Duality: Ancient and Contemporary Philosophy and the Days of the Dead," and Gutierrez's ofrenda in conjunction with its current major exhibit "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge."

The exhibit, made up largely of paintings from actor and entertainer Cheech Marin's private collection, features the work of 26 Chicano and Chicana artists.

"Chicano art is, by its nature, controversial--both because of social content and because it has grown up outside of the American mainstream," says Rene Yanez, Chicano Visions curator. "The images [in this exhibit] range from the depiction of daily life, such as Carmen Lomas Garza's Quinceanera, to important historical moments in the Chicano community, like Vincent Valdez's Kill the Pachuco, Bastard! showing the Zoot Suit riots in 1940s Los Angeles."

"If [the paintings] are disturbing, let us remember that the artists did not invent these events; they simply reflect the historical reality of the times," says Yanez.

Yanez and Marin collaborated in early 2001 with the idea of presenting a selection of Marin's sizeable collection to the Chicano community as well as the rest of America.

The Chicano art movement developed outside the national and international spotlights, mainly in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, San Antonio, and other cities in south Texas. In the 1970s, Chicano artists primarily worked alone and without encouragement or acknowledgement from the art community. However, in recent decades, they have emerged as an influential force in the art world.

"We're presenting our interpretation of the Chicano experience to the American people," says Marin, the nation's foremost collector of Chicano art. "I want all Americans to understand that Chicano culture plays a big part in the patchwork quilt that is Americana. The contributions of Chicanos have been enormous, but they tend to be overlooked."

Chicano Visions runs through January 2 at the Weisman Art Museum. Gallery hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

On Sunday, November 11, from noon to 4 p.m., the museum will host the Viva la Vida Family Day. The free event will feature Aztec dances, Mexican-American musical performances, and refreshments.

For more information, see the Weisman Art Museum Web site.

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