"Ana Josefa" by Veronica Melendez (2018)

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Given the characteristic treatment of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in American popular culture, visitors may expect to find glittering skulls and vibrantly attired skeletons inside the current exhibition at The Mansion at Strathmore. But Día de Muertos: Cultural Perspectives not only challenges the typical images by which the holiday is generically recognized and too often diminished; it offers intriguing and introspective ways its traditions manifest in works by contemporary diaspora artists from Latin America.

Appropriately matched to diverse interpretations, practices by participating artists range broadly, courtesy of exhibition curator Laura Irene (who, full disclosure, is a Washington City Paper contributor). Among the more traditional approaches, Katty Huertas’ split-open canvas, “See You on the Other Side,” lends three-dimensionality to an effective metaphor for rebirth and the brightly colored flowers left at the graves of loved ones. In a looser symbolic gesture, consumer products playfully represent the departed in Veronica Melendez’s graphic prints. Both artists reference traditions of graveside memorialization during Día de Muertos, and the peaceful afterlife they aspire to on behalf of the deceased. 

Remembrance and celebration of loved ones is the essence of Día de Muertos. However, the exhibition’s strength lies in works that seek to understand both personal loss and transnational identity. In “Performing Confessions and Laughing at Guilt,” artist Paula Castro Martinez dances between ocean and sand in the persona of a devil. Subtitles in English such as “There is enough stress in the afterlife” allude to the necessity of purging one’s sins before crossing over, while questioning the belief systems by which sin and shame are determined.

A small shrine set next to the Zenith television box on which the performance plays includes a glass altar candle to St. Anthony and a small red devil molded from playdough, two blue tears hanging on its cheek. The low-fi video, skipping and static with awkward sound, recalls 1980s technology, perhaps referencing an ancestor of the artist. Martinez also jabs at Catholicism, with a determination to celebrate the sinners along- side the saints.

The dichotomy inherent in some of the works emphasize the conditions of transnational identity, and Día de Muertos itself. Celebrated over the course of three days for the remembrance of saints and loved ones, the Allhallowtide between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, is a Catholic feast. But Día de Muertos is a pre-Christian, indigenous tradition, enveloped by the Church after Spanish colonialism.

These roots are made direct in the large textiles of photographic images of a Native Mexican headdress by Edgar Reyes, whose work is reminiscent in scale and color of Chicano art murals. While Jessica Aguero’s installation of deflated helium balloons in “Forever And” resurrects the kitsch that is commonly found road- side, their luminous colors suit a kind of pop shrine to movement, in and beyond this world. In “So Travel Well,” Erick Benitez’s deceptively simple silhouettes in acrylic on thermal mylar dispel any notion of Día de Muertos as a fun sideshow to Halloween. The ghostly contours of flowers used in healing practices speak to traditions travelled across distances and cultures. For transnational artists, “crossed over” implies not only travel of the dead but a condition of the living. Ties to the past and to healing become more important as they become less tangible, and as we all slip further down the same inevitable path.

10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Free. (301) 581-5100. strathmore.org.