On October 29, 2016 I attended El Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) festival at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. The seventeenth year of this community-based festival of life was a very moving spiritual, visual, and musical experience that links to deeply rooted history and cultural practices. As a public historian I am attracted to take part in and view how public programming and events (especially success ones) that are produced to connect diverse people with history through contemporary experiences. It was especially rewarding to view at the festival a stirring exhibition contribution by Los Angeles artist Zeal Harris.
At the core of this hallowed event are the methodically crafted altars and spiritual shrines. These tributes and offerings provide a linkage between ancient traditions and modern customs chronicling the relation between faith, family and history. They are a main focal point of the observance that resonate deep affection and love towards the dearly departed. The altars traditionally include materials representing the four main elements of nature – Earth, Wind, Water and Fire.
Artist Zeal Harris with associates were invited to create a tribute and offering for the “Curated Altars” section that connected the activism of Black Lives Matters to spiritual event of ritual and celebration of El Día de Los Muertos. Harris and her associates created a moving tribute to the departed spirits of the lives lost to the extrajudicial killings of black people by police and vigilantes, and of advocacy for dignity, justice and respect of black life and those that have been marginalized within the Black Liberation movements. They used the traditional materials (i.e. marigolds, candles, photos and food) familiar to practitioners and participants in this spiritual event and others (i.e. shoes and jewelry) that could be identified as more specifically and universally associated with those spirits represented in Harris and associates offering to commemorate and honor the dead and guide them to the place were they would feast with the ancestors.
Harris and associates created a powerful, soulful, thought provoking and visually dynamic altar that spoke to personal and public emotions and symbols of life and death, societal disenfranchisement and hope for a better tomorrow. Their altar was a deep ritualistic action of claiming public space, reflection and uplift that is part of the many small and large gestures of indelible political acts of art that have become ingrained in the popular consciousness in the last few years, and made a diverse public attending El Día de Los Muertos festival more aware of the issues Black Lives Matter pushed to the forefront of United States’ citizens consciousness about how black bodies are treated.
El Día de Los Muertos is one of Mexico’s traditional holidays reuniting and honoring beloved ancestors, family and friends. The historical roots of this celebration date back to the pre-Hispanic cultures of Meso-America indigenous people, and others native to Mexico more than 3,000 years. This Hollywood Forever Cemetery community-based event that aims to encompass and visually illustrate a Pre-Columbian ancient jovial traditional view of death with a modern eclectic celebratory observance is well worth the entry price. I look forward to attending it again in the future. I also look forward to viewing more of Zeal Harris work in other venues. Learn more about the Día del Los Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery at their website, and more about how to create your own altar here.