Days of the Dead: The National Museum of Mexican Art commemorates one of Mexico’s most cherished traditions

“Death,” as it reads upon the wall facing the entrance of the exhibit, “is ultimately the physical end of life, but in many ways, death is also a renewal, a new beginning.” And so death is celebrated with the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, and the exhibit in honor of its occurrence, now open at the newly rechristened National Museum of Mexican Art. “Día de los Muertos: A New Beginning,” curated by Oscar Sánchez, is the institute’s twenty-first annual celebration of the holiday, and the first to be held since the museum adopted its new name.

To some, the concept of Día de los Muertos may be a bit confusing, if not downright disturbing. Whereas Americans typically celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with Halloween, treating dead spirits as frightful ghouls who adolescents emulate while knocking on doors and asking for candy, in Mexico and other parts of the world this time of year is treated as one of remembrance, when the lost souls of loved ones return to be with their friends and families before moving on to a better place. While it may seem like a potentially heavy-hearted occasion, it is mostly one of joy; instead of mourning loss, one looks back fondly at the time the departed had spent on earth, and wishes them off with the best of fortune for their new life–and new beginning–to come.

To celebrate the holiday, families construct ofrendas, or offerings, to honor the deceased. Visual Arts Director Cesáreo Moreno explains: “What people do in Mexico, on the day [of the holiday] they install in their homes altars, altars that have offerings on them to welcome back the spirits of their dead friends and families. They believe that the spirits of their families and friends are allowed to return to earth and hang out in the home and remember what it’s like to feel alive. So let’s say your friend was visiting from out of town, and he liked a certain kind of wine, or type of cigarettes…you would make sure that you had some.”

As a testament to the importance of these altars, Sánchez centered the Día de los Muertos exhibit around fifteen such ofrendas, constructed by artists both north and south of the border. Together, they represent the wide variety of styles and approaches that are taken by different peoples in different regions. “I think the exhibit shows a lot of variety of the celebration,” Moreno comments. “Every town in Mexico does things their own way, but at the same time I think you can see the universal aspect of Día de los Muertos, what they all have in common.” At the same time, visitors may notice a definite shift in the style of the ofrendas by the time they finish walking through the exhibit, moving from more traditional constructions at the beginning into more contemporary themes and more adventurous conceptions by the exhibit’s end. Sánchez intended the effect as such. “When you walk in it’s very, very traditional,” he points out, “and from there it gets a little more contemporary and a little more contemporary, and those are no longer considered altars but installations. They hold true to the original beginnings which are the ofrendas…but they are very much more a contemporary idea.” Thus, while the first altar consists of wooden shelves decorated with fruit, flowers, wooden bandit dolls and other toys, candles, and photographs–in this case of four young children who tragically passed away in a fire in 2006–the latter pieces take on more creative forms, such as that of a giant shrine in honor of Mictantecuhtle, Lord of the World of the Dead, and a recreated classroom, complete with desks and school supplies, created by students at Big Picture High School in memory of the “32 Fallen Stars,” Chicago public school students who fell victim to violence during the 2006-2007 school year.

To complement the ofrendas, the exhibit also includes a number of paintings, photographs, sculptures and even a few especially elaborate sugar skulls on display to fully round out the holiday’s portrayal. As a whole they represent both the solemn and the celebratory aspects of the occasion, with images of women mourning by candlelight juxtaposed next to giant papier-mâché skeletons decked out in humorous costumes and placed in a variety of unusual and not-typically-death-like scenarios. It all adds up to a comprehensive look at the annual celebration that is Día de los Muertos, and marks a fitting “new beginning” for the museum under its new name, adopted late last year to reflect its position as the “largest and leading Mexican cultural institution in the U.S.” But bragging rights aside, the exhibit is much more than just a typical top-notch collection of art. “I think it’s important,” Sánchez declaims. “I think it’s a tool to give everyone a chance to see how a family unit works and gives them a chance to see how family comes together… a chance to really see Mexican culture.”

National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 18th St. Through December 16. Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. (312)738-1503. www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org