I would love to say my experience of el Día de los Muertos in Bolivia was as visually impressive as the opening sequence of Spectre but what it may have lacked in helicopter hijinks and smouldering skeletons was more than made up for by spending the day with those to whom it truly meant something.
I was in the Bolivian capital La Paz at the time of the holiday, working for an English language magazine called (hold on to your bowler hats) the Llama Express. I spent el Día de los Muertos with my colleague, La Paz local Rene, and his friends and family. In the relaxed surroundings of a public park, we toasted the raised spirits of the dead with some Paceña beer and a barbecue.
Celebrating the dead is a bit of alien concept for the inherently conservative British psyche but it was easy to get swept up in it while in Bolivia. It started a small obsession during my travels around South America of visiting cemeteries culminating in the grandest of them all, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, the final resting place of Eva Perón.
But it was the smaller cemeteries that really spoke to my (perhaps ironically heathen) soul. Wandering around them feels far from eerie – the many and varied ways families pay homage to their late loved ones with carefully chosen objects displayed in glass casements is both joyful and moving. They are all in essence small art installations.
We have our own very special personal memorial at ArtÓ. Pride of place in a cabinet overlooking the gallery is the unassuming photo of Maureen Smith, mother and artistic inspiration of our founder. She is surrounded by an eclectic collection of items echoing the Day of the Dead – a realistic resin skull by Jim Martins, Ed Hardy shoes decorated with calavera, a Lego skeleton head storage tub.
Maureen keeps a watchful eye over ArtÓ as does the subject of Falling Sparrow by Todd White, one of a series of pieces by the artist inspired by the Day of the Dead. It’s an artwork which generates diverse opinions from our visitors. Some think the woman, depicted with sugar skull makeup, is ghoulish, others beautiful. Some see her gaze as provocative, others casually observing. Regardless, she prompts a reaction.
While not deliberately evoking the other side, Alastair Gibson’s God Save The African Queen, an exploration of the anatomy of the human skull fused with modern engineering, is certainly an arresting piece. Made from bismuth, titanium, peek, granite and Gibson’s trademark carbon fibre, the one-off sculpture is a tour de force of design and detail which forces you to look it in its hollow eyes.
If spending el Día de los Muertos in the intense high-altitude sunshine and tinglingly cool air of the Andes taught me anything, it was to take a more open-minded approach to how we view the dead. Skulls are not scary. The spirits mean us no harm. The holiday is intended to be a reunion, a celebration of life when mourning is forbidden. We, too, treat our seemingly spooky pieces at ArtÓ as friends not foe.
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