Nov. 1 marks the ten year anniversary of the Dia de Los Muertos celebration at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Because of COVID-19, the museum has decided to host a virtual Dia de Los Muertos celebration this year, which can be found on the Nelson-Atkins website.
The virtual installation features five sections that the viewer can explore.
The first section, entitled “Dia de Los Muertos Traditions,” gives a brief account of the nature of Dia de los Muertos and how the holiday is celebrated in Kansas City, particularly at the Nelson-Atkins. The section also features a video wherein Jenny Mendez, director of cultural arts at the Mattie Rhodes Center, details the importance of certain symbols during the Day of the Dead.
In particular, Mendez describes the ofrendas – altars which are used to connect with the spirits of dead loved one through offerings of things which the loved ones enjoyed in their lives. Furthermore, the altar is an opportunity to connect with the four elements: water, fire, earth and air. The altar, and Dia de Los Muertos in general, is an important piece of pre-Columbian Hispanic cultural heritage.
The second section of the installation is entitled “Making Memories.” This section features pictures of past Day of the Dead celebrations at the Nelson-Atkins, dating back to the first celebration ten years ago.
This section also talks about important collaborations between the Nelson-Atkins and several organizations to create these Dia de Los Muertos celebrations. The 2020 virtual celebration was created in collaboration with the Central Avenue Dia de los Muertos Celebration, The Guadalupe Center, the Kansas City museum, the Mattie Rhodes Art Center, Telemundo Kansas City and the Mexican Consulate in Kansas City. This section has speakers from the Mattie Rhodes Art Center talk about their experience in collaborating with the Nelson-Atkins.
Finally, this section has an interview with Catrina, a famous symbol that is a part of Dia de Los Muertos celebrations. The Catrina interview is a collaboration with the Mexican Consulate in Kansas City, artist Jessica Carillo, Telemundo KC and the Nelson-Atkins.
The third section is entitled “In the Artist’s Words.” This section features an interview with Mexican artist Betasabeé Romero, known for creating art installations featuring cars and automobile-related materials. In this interview, Romero discusses an installation that she made for the Nelson-Atkins in 2012, as well as the inspiration for her artwork.
The fourth section is entitled “Activity,” and includes instructions on making “papel picado,” or punched paper. Papel picado is decoratively etched tissue paper strung around streets, homes and altars during the Day of the Dead. Papel picado is important, as it symbolizes air, one of the four elements, which is important to emphasizing our earthly connection to the world during the Day of the Dead.
The fifth and final section is entitled “68 Voices, 68 Hearts.” This section showcases the work done by HOLA COMBO, a Mexican cinema and television group that created a project wherein different stories are told in the 68 indigenous languages of Mexico. The Nelson-Atkins website features the story of “How did the Rabbit Get to the Moon” told in the Huasteco language and accompanied by artwork of the seven graphic designers of HOLA COMBO.
It may be that the Nelson-Atkins is unable to host an in-person exhibition for Dia de Los Muertos. That’s not to say that the celebrative spirit does not live on. In fact, this Dia de Los Muertos affords us with the unique opportunity to celebrate life. In particular, we can celebrate the lives of essential workers– nurses, teachers, food service workers, sanitizing crews– who have died as a result of COVID-19. While we may all be apart, we can nevertheless collectively remember the lives of those who have died for a greater cause.