Sunday, November 9, 2014

Ofrendas: Art and offering

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We all die. I was reminded of that in church today. As undeniable as that truism is, it isn’t a popular message in our culture in or out of a religious setting. Other cultures don’t have the same aversion to death, however. We are reminded of this each autumn around this time when the over-commercialized holiday of Halloween is accompanied, as it increasingly is, by the Day of the Dead.

Alverno College Ofrenda, detail (UCC)
The traditional Mexican observance of Día de los Muertos was a family affair held in the home or at a cemetery where ancestors were buried. Altars called Ofrendas ("offerings" in Spanish) often were lovingly created to honor the dead. Over the years this reverential folk tradition has been expanded and Ofrendas have become more diverse. Today in Milwaukee you can find contemporary versions of Ofrendas in several local art galleries. Many of them hew closely to the time-honored conventions that feature skull motifs, skeletal figures, flower arrangements and foodstuffs, along with photographs and other images of the deceased.

Others take the themes of the occasion as a point of departure to make artistic, societal and even political statements. Over the past week I visited three galleries that have chosen to recognize the Day of the Dead by inviting artists and others to create Ofrendas on site in their spaces. I’ve taken some photographs (which should be no surprise.) In most cases I didn’t capture the whole Ofrenda, choosing instead to focus in on a detail that caught my attention.

My hope is to encourage you to visit these places and spend some time with the Ofrendas in their intended context. Their meanings cannot be taken in at a glance in any case and they deserve to be experienced in the reverential spirit with which they were created.

Thoughtful descriptions or artists’ statements accompany many of the Ofrendas. I have included excerpts from some of them.



The Alfons Gallery is a bit off the beaten track, located on the second floor of the imposing main building of the School Sisters of St. Francis campus on South 27th St. The gallery invited artists, interns, staff, and volunteers at Redline Milwaukee to collaborate in a single large altar. I particularly enjoyed seeing this Ofrenda within its religious context, among the permanent collection of sacred artworks.





Leann Wooten: “It was very healing for me to work on this piece with my father in mind. I felt a spiritual connection to him on this artistic journey….” 

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Sue Vliet: “Beautiful, laughing brown eyes, my paternal grandmother had kind eyes, always full of mirth and mischief. My memories of her are clear and happy…. She allowed me to eat cake for breakfast, kept an can of ‘spray’ whipped cream in her refrigerator for special snacks, took walks with me, listened to my stories, and laughed at my jokes.”


Gary Niebuhr: “I am not comfortable…thinking about my own mortality. I would rather think about someone else’s mortality…. I never practiced the witchcraft of art until after the passing of my father. I often wonder if his death was a freeing experience or if it is the shadow of guilt that follows me. “


Sally Kuzma: “This ofrenda is in memory of my mother Ellie….  The word for bellybutton—a tangible connection to our mothers—hangs in the air, contributed by friends, colleagues, and students of mine who have ties to dozens of different languages.”

United Community Center


“Remembrance Altar” (detail) by the UCC’s art therapist and selected clients in honor the memories of loved ones who have passed away.


Jeanette Arellano: “This altar is dedicated to our loved ones who have lived with mental illness…. I wanted to make this piece interactive because all of us have at some point in our lives lived with a mental illness or know someone who has, however we keep it hidden as though it doesn’t exist, which is something I can personally attest to.” [Visitors are invited to inflate balloons in remembrance of loved ones with mental illnesses and to think about moments they share with them.]


Ximena Soza: “Nidos Vacíos is dedicated to the sons and daughters that have been lost to violence. Whether it is in Palestine, Ferguson, Milwaukee, or Mapuche land in Chile, the loss of sons or daughters speaks the same language of pain…. My ofrenda is a piece of fabric with a dress and a nest in the center representing the grieving process of mothers and families, the emptiness of death lives in those who are alive.”


Clay relief sculptures with acrylic paint by second grade students at Bruce-Guadalupe Elementary School based on discussions about community wishes.


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What do George Washington and Vince Lombardi have in common? How are these and other well known historical and pop cultural figures related to deceased parents, grandparents, and family pets? They are all well represented in the wall-sized, multidisciplinary and collaborative ofrenda created by fifth graders at University School of Milwaukee.

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This was a lovely experience, clearly a crowd favorite at the opening reception Friday evening. I witnessed many people carefully viewing each of what seemed like hundreds of tiny individual memorials that make up this ofrenda. 

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On Saturday, November 1 there was a Día de los Muertos parade in Milwaukee. If you missed my earlier post and photo essay about that, click here to see it.

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