Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
Halloween has come and gone but, for many, that does not mean an end to the spooky festivities. Día de los Muertos, celebrated from November 1st-2nd, is a joyous (not spooky!) Latin American holiday where music, food, and gifts are given to family–both living and deceased–as a way to remember the departed. Long-time patrons of the museum may remember our annual Día de los Muertos festivities of years past. Sadly, COVID barred the museum from offering a large-scale event the last two years. Fear not! The museum is excited to welcome back our celebration, in full swing, for 2022: various community-created ofrendas adorn our galleries and festivities (dancers! mariachi!) are planned for this coming Sunday, November 6th.
Accompanying the altars are artworks from our permanent collection which showcase a variety of Día de los Muertos themes; one of which is titled Noche Infinita, infinite night, by Artemio Rodríguez. Rodríguez was born in Tacámbaro, Michoacán, México. At 16, he began studying crop management and food science but switched to art when introduced to letterpress printing under master printer Juan Pascoe. At 21 he moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for 15 years. His signature black-and-white style is expressive and content heavy, bearing influences from European medieval woodcuts and the great Mexican print artist José Guadalupe Posada (more on him in a minute).
In Noche Infinite, Rodríguez has set the table (literally) for a crazy cast of characters. Dozens of skeletal figures, calaveras, feast at a long table with more grinning guests surrounding them. The calaveras seem to come from many eras, as all manners of dress are represented, from a man with a handlebar mustache and tuxedo seated at the head of the table to a punk-rocker with spiked mohawk on the far left. While some may find them chilling (spooky scary skeletons indeed), others might find them amusing; their wide eye sockets, wild grins, and sometimes comical clothing makes them more cartoon-like than frightening. This style pulls from Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, a commercial illustrator who created designs for advertisements, periodicals, cookbooks, children’s books, and, most famously, on brightly colored penny broadsheets. Sold primarily to the working class in and around Mexico City, his enormous body of work often centered around politically cutting calaveras who straddled the line between humorous and grotesque. Although he died penniless in 1913, his work would draw huge acclaim in the following decade, inspiring the next wave of social activist artists including José Clemente Orozco, Jean Charlot, and Diego Rivera. Jean Charlot would go on to describe him as the “printmaker to the Mexican people”.
In addition to the wide variety of guests, all manner of food is depicted. Peppers, chicken, salsa, and bottles of alcohol litter the table. Rodríguez is paying homage to the Día de los Muertos tradition of providing food for the deceased, which can range from traditional pan de muerto and tamales to the deceased’s favorite food (hence the Mezcal). The belief is that the spirits are nourished by the essence of food while the living enjoy and remember fond memories of their loved ones when they eat later. If anyone has a favorite family recipe passed down through the generations, they will know the power food has to bring back memories of loved ones.
There are a few stranger things than grandma’s cookies being passed around this table. In front of our tuxedo-clad head of the table is a bowl containing a human heart pierced with a dagger. This is one of several depictions of Aztec imagery found in this print. The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico from 1300 to 1521. Today, over a half-million of their descendants still exist and speak the Aztec language (Nahua). The Aztecs are perhaps best known today for their use of human sacrifice. Although highly dramatized in film and pop culture, death was indeed a necessary part of ritual life to appease the gods and perpetuate creation. Other Aztec figures are in the skeletal crowd. The influence of the Aztecs was central to Mexican national identity following its independence from Spain in 1821. They are also closely linked to Día de los Muertos, as the Aztecs had a whole month celebrating the dead. By including Aztec iconography Rodríguez connects to his roots, delving farther back than his direct ancestors to the core of Mexican culture.
Finally, our diners seem to be floating in a dark, constellation filled sky. The night of November 1st to the dawn of November 2nd is when the souls of the dead can return to the realm of the living. In Noche Infinite Rodríguez has suspended this moment in a perpetual night, allowing these ancestors to be present beyond the rising sun in both setting and medium. In a Euro-centric culture, we are often convinced from the time that we are little that death is sad. Yet, through holidays like Día de los Muertos and the works of artists such as Artemio Rodríguez, we are reminded of the continuous cycle of life and the immense array of loved ones and ancestors who have enabled our being.
Join in the festivities at FWMoA this Sunday, November 6th from 2p-6pm!