The Oakland Museum of California is presenting its last week of Ancient Roots/Urban Journeys: Expressions for Días de los Muertos, its fourteenth annual celebration of the Central American tradition, Day of the Dead.
The show is part art exhibit, part participatory ofrendas — the commemorative stagings of flowers, food, and personal effects set up to honor and present a site on which to commune with the dead. The museum invited community groups and schools, as well as artists, to create works interpreting and reinterpreting the tradition of ofrendas, collecting together an eclectic mix of artistic, conceptual, and heartfelt works.
Some pieces are clearly art first, but ones that happen to commemorate the dead. These include "Lady of the Dead" by Samuel and Matthew Rodriguez, a lowrider bike with a leafy rose painted on its seat as it ascends between rows of humanoid boxes gradually increasing in size, and Mariana Garibay's "Memorial," a giant diorama in grays and whites, featuring a base of cinderblocks housing little skulls and supporting a white city of skyscrapers, while white leaves twirl from suspended wires above. One of the most interesting and complex of these is "Awakening" by Gilbert Neri. A fabricated exhibit of bits and pieces discovered in the search for Mictlán, the mythical place of the dead, it tells the story of an archaeologist and his findings. The centerpiece is a rusty metal bedframe, one that the fabled anthropologist supposedly slept on, and open upon it is a suitcase of rose-colored oblong objects that look like raw crystals. Neri tells us that they are "giant petrified tears of the dead."
Also collected here are shrines to the recently dead members of East Bay communities — including a recreation of the memorial that spontaneously arose in the wake of Oakland reporter Chauncey Bailey's murder, with a notebook available for viewers to record their thoughts. In the center of the main room, there is perhaps the largest of the ofrendas, assembled by the second and third graders of Reach Academy in Oakland. Its centerpieces are RIP T-shirts, which are draped over wooden crosses and memorialize in digital screen-printed images and gel pens everyone from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frida Kahlo to Tia Lupe, "Jed" the dog, and one child's baby brother.
The exhibit is vibrant and eccentric and alive in its grappling with both the concept and reality of death, and more than worth making time for the visit before its close on December 2. 1000 Oak St., Oakland. MuseumCa.org or 510-238-2200.