Dead dudes in Mexican duds

By Mellisa Shea

Skeletons, skulls and bones. This is a festival? It is all part of the Mexican Festival of the Dead, possibly the largest festival in small Mexican pueblos. Flowers and skulls are everywhere, in every form. Costumes, candles, candies, cookies–they’re all skeletons.

Some say attending this festival gives them a new perspective on death. Among those people are Kirsten Abrahamson, Pat Strakowski and Wendy Toogood–all artists currently holding an exhibition at The New Gallery. The Days of the Dead celebrates the dead in Mexican fashion. Every colour of the rainbow attends in profusion. The brightness is shocking, considering the North American tendency to associate death with black; a sombre and melancholy shade.

Saturday’s artists’ talk helped narrow the cultural gap. The three women spoke of their own perspectives on death and how they changed during their trips to the Mexican festival where they earned a licence to have fun with a usually dark theme.

The colours and themes of the festival, as viewed in the slides shown during the artists’ talk, are echoed in the artists’ work. The essence of the Festival of the Dead has been brought to the Great White North.

Abrahamson’s and Strakowski’s skeletal figures of paper maché and mixed media are ironically lifelike and jovial, and in the festival’s spirit, baring every tooth. Kirsten Abrahamson’s skeleton, "Rosie," embodies the mood of festivity, donning jewels, lace and feathers like flesh, rising to dance for the Day of the Dead as if she were living. Abrahamson’s talk delved into the personal aspects of her work, relating her experiences with the deaths of friends and family. She explained some of her works in an autobiographical context, using slides to illustrate her easy and intimate communication. With a fascination for graveyards as quiet and peaceful places, she described the Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, the city of her youth, and also the cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario. The accompanying slides show dark gravestones and serene white stone figures against the green of Catholic cemeteries. Her artwork helps her come to terms with death and the deaths of those close to her.

Strakowski’s work explores death as part of a cycle of life. "Memory Shelf," made up of five individual pieces, illustrates the theme of life stemming from death. Individuals and couples sit in the shade of fantastic trees growing from skulls painted with colourful flowers and birds.

Wendy Toogood’s cloth constructs are semi-abstracted spirit representations. The medium, though different from the other two artists, is recognizable by colour and theme as part of the celebration. Though not as appealing as dancing skeletons, the constructs have their own unique spiritual perspective, with their thoughts of the unknown.

The Days of the Dead is an interesting way of gaining a new perspective on death and different cultural approaches to the theme. Through the artist’s eyes and emotions, the viewer is given profound insights into Mexican traditions and beliefs on the universal topic of boundaries.

The Days of the Dead runs until Oct. 30 at The New Gallery 516d 9 Ave. SW. For more information, please call 233-2399.

A cemetery tour also takes place on Sat., Oct. 9, at 2 p.m. at the Union Cemetery. Don Sucha will provide a free tour to celebrate the Days of the Dead festival. Guests are invited to tell stories of those they know currently residing at the cemetery.

For more information, contact Tammy McGrath at 233-2399.

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