The Quick and The Dead

By Kimberly Soloman | 11/8/10 11:25am

Gavin Huang / The Dartmouth Staff

Dia de los Muer­tos - or Day of the Dead - came to Dart­mouth last week, her­alded by Los An­ge­les-based con­tem­po­rary artist Rigo Mal­don­ado’s im­pres­sive art in­stal­la­tion in Baker-Berry Li­brary.

Be­hind the event was Latin Amer­i­can, Latino and Caribbean Stud­ies Cesar Chavez Fel­low Robb Her­nan­dez, who saw Mal­don­ado’s work as an op­por­tu­nity to “bring what we do [in LALACS] to the stu­dent body.” Mal­don­ado’s in­stal­la­tion in Baker Berry is only a small part of this emerg­ing artist’s body of work on the Day of the Dead.

For the past 15 years, Mal­don­ado has worked to rep­re­sent Day of the Dead as both an artis­tic prac­tice and a way to honor the dead. This merg­ing of art and tra­di­tion prompted Her­nan­dez and the LALACS de­part­ment to in­vite Mal­don­ado to Dart­mouth as a vis­it­ing artist.

Day of the Dead, which oc­curs each year on Nov. 2, is a Mex­i­can hol­i­day is best known for its cel­e­bra­tion — rather than lamen­ta­tion — of the dead and their lives. In ad­di­tion to other fes­tiv­i­ties, those who cel­e­brate the hol­i­day build in­tri­cate al­tars for their dead loved ones. These often col­or­ful struc­tures con­tain pho­tos of the per­son who has passed and the per­son’s fa­vorite foods and bev­er­ages. Ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, the dead will come back to enjoy their al­tars and the cel­e­bra­tion.

With the tra­di­tional altar as in­spi­ra­tion, Mal­don­ado hosted an event at the LALACS House in which stu­dents built their own minia­ture box al­tars for their dead friends and fam­ily. Mal­don­ado then took these minia­ture al­tars and arranged them to­gether into what he called a “com­mu­nity altar” in Baker-Berry Li­brary. Mal­don­ado ex­plained that his es­sen­tial pur­pose of the pro­ject was to “[in­vite] the pri­vate space into the pub­lic space” and that the first floor of Baker-Berry lent it­self per­fectly to this pur­pose.

Mal­don­ado com­ple­mented the less-tra­di­tional com­mu­nity as­pect of the in­stal­la­tion with more tra­di­tional el­e­ments such as brightly col­ored paper cutouts, skele­ton fig­urines, minia­ture marzi­pan skulls and or­ange marigolds. Com­plet­ing the in­stal­la­tion was a plasma screen pro­jec­tion of Day of the Dead im­ages.

In ad­di­tion to bring­ing an un­ex­pected burst of cul­ture and color to Dart­mouth, the com­mu­nity altar went be­yond a sim­ple artis­tic state­ment to af­fect stu­dents on a deeper emo­tional level. One stu­dent, ac­cord­ing to Mal­don­ado, even broke out into tears upon view­ing the in­stal­la­tion for the first time. Even more no­table was that this stu­dent was not Mex­i­can Amer­i­can, nor did she cel­e­brate Day of the Dead — she was sim­ply a stu­dent from Texas who, as Mal­don­ado ex­plains, was so moved be­cause the in­stal­la­tion re­minded her of home.

By tak­ing cul­ture out­side the walls of affin­ity and aca­d­e­mic pro­grams, Mal­don­ado pre­sented Day of the Dead as less of a strictly Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence and more of a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the greater, shared human ex­pe­ri­ence. Mal­don­ado’s Day of the Dead in­stal­la­tion is a prime ex­am­ple of how art can tran­scend sim­ple aes­thetic pur­poses to con­vey emo­tion, his­tory, and a greater mes­sage. While Mal­don­ado in­stal­la­tion has been gone as of Sun­day, its ef­fect on Dart­mouth cer­tainly is not.

Kimberly Soloman