(by Jessica Schwartz, LACIS’ Outreach Intern and BA ’15) Based on the traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico, community members are celebrating Day of the Dead – with a Madison twist. Artist and Professor Carolyn Kallenborn of the School of Human Ecology hoped to recreate the experience of Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, while incorporating our own Wisconsin traditions.
The complete Day of the Dead experience includes both Kallenborn’s film La Vida y Los Muertos and her two exhibitions displayed at Edgewood College: an experiential installation La Luz y La Sombra / The Light and The Shadow and the community art project Remembrance and Celebration. Kallenborn designed the film and the two exhibits to complement one another, to provide a glimpse at Day of the Dead traditions from multiple angles: linear, experiential, and participatory.
“The film is a linear way of experiencing the Day of the Dead,” she explained. “The film is mostly music and sound depicting the celebrations in Oaxaca, with no narration.” La Vida y Los Muertos will be screened at Edgewood College at 7:00pm on Saturday, November 1st in the Diane Ballweg Theater. The Department of Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) will sponsor the screening at the University of Wisconsin – Madison at 6:30pm on Sunday, November 2nd in the Marquee Theater in Union South. The Film and Gallery exhibition and community project and Day of the Dead Festival were made possible by generous funding by University of Wisconsin – WARF and Edgewood College. Partial funding from the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Title VI program. The Madison Children´s Museum was also a contributing partner.
La Luz y La Sombra / The Light and The Shadow is designed to provide a nonlinear experience, Kallenborn explained. “You can stay for thirty seconds or a few hours. There are things happening in front of you and behind you, but you don’t have a linear storytelling experience. The exhibition replicates the experience of being in a cemetery.”
In a similar way, Kallenborn designed the exhibit Remembrance and Celebration to promote community participation by allowing individuals, families, and community groups to create personal alters of remembrance and celebration. As Kallenborn visited communities in Oaxaca, she noted that all individuals were actively involved in the Day of the Dead celebrations. “The experience of making an altar is completely different than simply viewing an altar,” she explained. “It isn’t about just looking at things in the world, but engaging with something inside yourself. It takes time to make an altar, and it is an inspiring and emotional experience. For instance, one of my student’s brothers had passed away, and searching through his belongings to decorate the altar brought up memories. It was tough yet healing.”
The turnout and interest in creating and attending the exhibits have been outstanding. According to Kallenborn, the exhibits have brought together community members from all backgrounds. “While some participants are artists, others are involved because they really miss someone and want to honor them.” Some also attend to enrich their Latino culture. “I met a family that was from Mexico but lived near Milwaukee,” Kallenborn said. “They were in tears because they were so happy to see the exhibits because it felt nostalgic to them.” The exhibits have also brought together community members in hard times. Kallenborn shared a story that touched her deeply. “A woman had taken home a box, and her friend passed away shortly after. She then took the box to the funeral and more than 60 people participated in decorating her altar. It is so tragic and heartwarming at the same time.”
In addition to bringing together the Madison community, the altar project has allowed community members to develop their own traditions. In Mexico, Kallenborn observed how Day of the Dead celebrations differed between nearby villages and families. Some families have an all-night cemetery vigil, while others wait until November third to visit the cemetery when everyone else has left, she explained. The altar project at Edgewood College is not supposed to be a literal creation but rather inspire the same energy of Oaxaca’s celebrations. “The altar project is a way to interpret the Mexican idea and experience and redo it in a way that works for how we live,” said Kallenborn. “What they do can inform us and inspire us, but we should adapt the traditions to fit our culture.” Rather than holding the event in a cemetery with performances by a Mexican brass band, the Madison Day of the Dead celebrations incorporate a New Orleans-style jazz band, a candle-light ceremony, and giant puppets from the Children’s Museum. “Through these everyday ideas, art becomes a part of people’s lives,” said Kallenborn.
Kallenborn was inspired by a friend who once told her – “El Todo Poderoso, or the All-Powerful, permits our loved ones to come back one day of the year, so we throw them a party.” According to Kallenborn, the exhibits at Edgewood College don’t feel like a funeral, but rather a party. “The culture of Oaxaca is so rich and beautiful, and we have so much to gain from their perspective on death. It is all about the beloved people who have died and their memories in our hearts. So often we hear about the bad things, in both Mexico and the world, such as Mexico’s recent student killings. It is important to recognize that there are fabulous tings in Mexico that are a very real part of their culture, but we just don’t hear about it. The Day of the Dead celebrations provide us with an opportunity for conversation and reflection.” The Day of the Dead celebrations, in both Oaxaca and Madison, are about being happy for our loved ones and honoring who they were, who they’ve helped us become, and their unforgettable impact on our lives. We are a spot in a long continuum of time, and the Day of the Dead celebrations make us think about the legacy we leave behind.
For more information about Kallenborn’s film La Vida y Los Muertos, please visit:
*This film and series of events were funded in part by the Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies Program through a grant provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI Program.”