Requiem for the Dead: Painting the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Dia De Los Muertos ‘Day Of The Dead’ Pantheon General Oaxaca Mexico ‘Requiem’ 2008

Acrylic paint, chalk, charcoal and glitter on canvas 160cmx120cm

Private collection

In Mexico in Oaxaca’s Pantheon General Cemetery accompanied by our friend the film maker Michael Holland we come across an orchestra playing Mozart’s Requiem on the night of the Day of the Dead celebration. Listening to the beautiful music I know I want to paint the scene but I haven’t come here to draw because it didn’t feel right to do so and consequently I’m on edge as I don’t have my sketchbook and pencils with me to record this scene before me that is so full of emotion and beauty ans music. I begin to soak up the faces and small incidents so I can get it all down on paper back at my studio in Oaxaca.

The result is more than a painting about people commemorating their dead loved ones. After a month of painting and repainting It becomes for me a painting about the strength of women. A woman dressed as a devil had caught my eye at the cemetery. In the painting she watches with a heavy heart as a man places a candle on the Tapete sand sculpture made by a women’s group to commemorate the ‘Mujeres Lilas’ or ‘women of the lilies’ who are murdered in the state of Oaxaca every month; 42 on average. Femicide is a shockingly normal occurrence in Mexico. After many reworkings of the composition the woman dressed as a devil moves from the background to the foreground. The effect is a woman personified as a devil looking on in despair at a map depicting the shocking extent of violence inflicted on the vulnerable female population within Mexican society, violence perpetrated by male domestic abusers and darker forces within Mexican society.

A man in a wrestling masks walks by and an elderly lady teases her son dressed as a skeleton as they sit on a tombstone.  In the painting I wanted her to appear to be mocking death. Diego Rivera overlooks the scene, brought back from the dead by this artist to give thanks for the murals that he left us. Dracula stands behind him and a family leave offerings for the departed spirits of their ancestors in the candlelight. Standing under our constellations, Aquarius and Sagittarius, my wife and I watch the scene amongst a crowd of Oaxacans next to a tree, the tree of life, as a baby howls at the pain of the world it has entered. Michael Holland sits contemplating the music in the corner of the painting. A father dons a rubber mask of the head of President Fox, scaring his son in the process. Zapata watches disapprovingly. The grim reaper is stalked for another photo call. All the while the music ascends to the heavens and to the dead ancestors lying entombed in the walls (Perpetuidad, Perpetuidad, Perpetuidad….). A father and son team duet in the string section and a boy peers in wonder and trepidation into an empty tomb to see only a gecko resting inside. His sister scatters a trail of marigolds on the tiled floor as she follows him to stare into the darkness. 

I was reminded of Philip Guston’s portraits by the hooded masked person dressed as a Spanish Nazareno penitent. Next to the penitent, a man sleeps; his mask has fallen and dangles below on an elastic string. For the Aztecs, life is a dream- a mask- and death is the only truly conscious state. Because death is awake this night I‘ve put a moth where the man’s flickering mind would be. An owl, for some a symbol of death, flaps across the sky startled by the fireworks. Life is a fleeting precious thing and the natural order of everything is reversed here. Aztec ancestral worship and Spanish Catholicism coexist in harmony. A dark empty cemetery is lit up with people, music, colour, humour, love, sadness, grief and all the things that make us human and alive. The ears of the dead- always close to us- have been tickled and and poked by the music and rhythm of the living.

Dia de los muertos day of the dead san miguel cemetery panteon general oaxaca mexico requiem copy (17) copy copy 1

 Dia de los muertos day of the dead san miguel cemetery panteon general oaxaca mexico requiem copy (17) copy copy 21


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