Art conveys tradition, memories
Posted Nov. 3, 2006

Vibrancy. Color. Intimacy. Emotion.

All four of these characteristics are intertwined in the Dia De Los Muertos exhibit on display at the Museum of History and Art in Ontario through Nov 5.

The exhibit honors the Latin American tradition of celebrating dead loved ones.

Paintings, portraits, sculptures, collages, paper mache pieces and altars fill the galleries.

The artwork shouts of life, religion, culture and personal associations.

Most pieces include a “calaca,” or skeleton.

Although connected by these similar ties, every piece is unique.

The materials used to create each piece, as well as the deep connections to the artist’s identity present fluency.

Giant skulls, or “calaveras,” dominate the galleries.

Each one of the skulls is brightly colored, showered in glitter and adorned with flowers, swirls and flourishes of paint.

At the back of the last gallery, a large painting covers an entire wall.

Reds, blacks, yellows and greens stream across it, depicting an abstract scene of struggle, pain and life.

More than one altar or collage also decorates the gallery.

Each has photos, trinkets, food and, sometimes, the clothing of long gone family members scattered across it.

The exhibit speaks of the Latin culture’s devotion to family, religion and death.

Annette Johnson, the guest curator for the exhibit, said she understood the importance of this Latin American tradition.

“This is something still celebrated,” Johnson said.

“It is really relevant to southern California because of the huge Latino population.”

Artists involved in the exhibit understood this as well.

Heriberto Luna, an up-and- coming artist from Los Angeles, said he was excited to educate others about the Latin race and its beautiful background.

“My culture inspires my artwork,” Luna said.

“I am proud of who I am,” he added.

Luna is the art director for Art Community Latin Activism, a program that teaches art to young children in Los Angeles.

He said he stressed the importance of culture and personal heritage in the program.

“No matter what race these kids are, I teach them to respect other cultures, because their art is beautiful,” Luna said.

Luna’s contribution to the Dia De Los Muertos exhibit was a painting depicting a Mayan death god.

The painting, which looks visually simplistic, speaks volumes.

The choice of color and the subject matter relate a lot to Luna and his use of religious and cultural symbols to express deeper Latin themes.

Another artist featured in the exhibit, Maria Montoya-Santillanez from Montclair, said her art was a combination of themes.

“It’s both personal and cultural,” Montoya-Santillanez said.

“It’s important that people see and understand my work.”

Montoya-Santillanez has had much experience with Day of the Dead exhibits.

In 1993, her association with the Chaffey Community Art Association gave her the opportunity to curate a Dia De Los Muertos exhibit.

Since then, she has been involved in numerous others.

“It makes me happy because it’s cross-cultural,” Montoya-Santillanez said. “People from all different backgrounds like and appreciate this artwork.”

Montoya-Santillanez contributed a tall collage to the exhibit.

It resembles a nopal, a cactus-like plant rooted in the Latin American culture.

Her piece covers one whole wall and each portion of the nopal plant has a photo or personal object attached to it.

The collage reflects Montoya-Santillanez’s personal history and the pride she takes in creating cultural family pieces.

Overall, the exhibit gives the viewer a feeling of involvement; of belonging to something profound and gorgeous.

Each of the works on display not only resonates with Latin American influences and visually brilliant cultural themes, but also with anyone who views it.

The artwork is all inclusive, making the viewer feel as if he or she is peeking not only into another world, but into the depths of the artists’ souls.

Lilia Cabello can be reached at lcabello@ulv.edu.

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