Last month I was in Mexico. Our visit coincided with the Day of the Dead (not by accident – my husband Neil has made a study of celebrations worldwide.)
Unlike the Celtic-based tradition on which Halloween is based, in which lingering souls are discouraged from hanging about, the Mexicans prepare elaborate altars laden with offerings to welcome their dead loved ones when they return.
There was a lot of dressing up in death masks and plenty of dancing, fabulous music and fireworks in the lead up to the day of the Dead as well.
On the night of October 31st we visited cemeteries around Oaxaca and saw families encamped for the night, having picnics around graves decorated with marigolds and candles, playing music, holding vigil.
As a civil celebrant I officiate at many funerals and memorial services. We tend to speak now of a “celebration of life” in preference to concentrating on the sorrow of death; this seems like a step in the right direction (away from Victorian solemnity towards something more personally relevant), but we could take some lessons from the Mexican people about how to imbue our ceremonies with colour and personal significance. I was very touched that people seemed not to mind us being there to share an occasion that was simultaneously private (a family matter) and public (in a graveyard).
Of course I made the pilgrimage to the Blue House, where Frida Kahlo lived, but I must admit I was saddened by the thought that the suffering she had so skilfully concealed from public view during her life was laid bare for all to see; and the best paintings were touring elsewhere, which was a disappointment. I retreated quite quickly to the garden, where the atmosphere was peaceful and beautiful.
Other Mexican highlights:
The Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
The Museo Amparo in Puebla, a great collection housed in a fine new building. Photos were not permitted in the current contemporary exhibition but here’s the view from the rooftop café
The Biblioteca Palifoxiana in Puebla, the oldest library in the Americas, an absolute treasure
Diego Rivera’s murals at the Palacio de Justicia in Mexico City. Although they are fading where they have been subjected to strong light, the colours are mostly still vivid and vibrant. Because the murals are essentially political I had not thought I would l would be so impressed, but they are truly masterful. I am so glad I saw them after seeing something of Mexico, to better understand the content. Here’s a detail…
We then moved north into New Mexico, around Santa Fe.
Here for me the great highlight was the Harwood Museum in Taos, which contains a gallery specially built to house seven works by Agnes Martin. These works are impossible to photograph; they are pale and subtle, and mesmeric. To be in a room full of them is something like being inside a 3-D after image. If you ever have a chance to be with Agnes Martin’s work, don’t miss it. I also discovered that Agnes’ ashes are buried out the back of the Harwood, so I was able to pay my respects to one of the artists whose work I have most admired.
As well at the Harwood was an exhibition described as “nuevo lowbrow” that was adventurous, risky, contained some really wonderfully painted and rather confronting images and was really interesting and enjoyable.
Other highlights around Santa Fe:
“Earthships”, a community of very wild sustainable housing outside Taos
The Academy for the Love of Learning, where Neil gave a presentation. An amazing facility, started by Aaron Stern (who still runs it) and his mentor Leonard Bernstein and privately funded.