For more than a decade surrealist and conceptual artist Cynthia Tom
has been participating in the annual Day of the Dead celebrations in San Francisco's Mission District. Each time she participates or helps other artists to participate, she discovers something profound and rewarding.
As she explained to this reporter, (whom she has spoken to several times before.)
"I think in most cultures, It is all about a time and space to honor those that have passed and ideas that need to be held spiritually and honored."
One of the artistic outlets for the Day of the Dead in the Mission is SOMArts Cultural Center in the heart of The Mission District. She noted that founder "Rene Yañez's Dia de los Muertos curatorial vision at SOMArts taught me that." "He took me beyond the drugstore candy buying concept of Halloween." she said.
And speaking of candy, more than $4 billion is spent on candy during the Halloween season. According to CEO, Neil Thanedar of LabDoor Magazine,
"86 percent of Americans" buy candy during this time. While the tradition of leaving food or sweets for the dead or the "spirits' that roam the earth at harvest time can be traced back to ancient times, Cynthia Tom embraces the "Día de Muertos more so now because she understands more and is appreciative of the rare opportunity she has had as an artist. The emphasis on treats and partying at times can take away from the more profound aspects of the ancient festivity. She noted further "Rene's version (of this time of year) is completely multicultural and it isn't a Disneyland-like Dia de Los Muertos." "Rene gathers artists with intense visions of who and what they are trying to honor and share, deeply with the public," she said.
"Día de Los Muertos, especially in Mexican culture can trace its origins to pre-Spanish and pre-Columbus times, when the Aztecs, Incas and Olmecs honored the solstices. Interestingly, the Celtic and Nordic peoples on the other side of the world, had similar beliefs and some of those are expressed in Halloween. Cynthia Tom
and other artists recognize those universal elements, even if traditions or customs differ. And, it is important to note that Dia de Los Muertos is not Halloween.
"That is the most broadly cultural and spiritual, non-traditional show and I am not doing (the Dia de Los Muertos) it this year, but it is my favorite show to be involved with," she said. Actually Cynthia will be participating in an upcoming show in November called, "Alchemy, Chapter 3: The Importance of The Breath." "I will get back to that, but let me say, some of the installations I've shared over the years have been very important to me. Homage to My grandmother , to Human trafficking, a wish for hopes of women, a previous version of the Alchemy series called Alchemy: Chapter 2, The Importance of the Breath, have expressed very deep feelings, some of which are beyond words."
The Dia de Los Muertos art exhibit and altar installations have been at SOMArts for 15 years and Rene Yañez has been the visionary, but not the only driving force. His son Rio Yañez now takes on a more leadership/coordinating role. He took some time to reach out to this reporter when I inquired about "Visions at Twilight: Dia de Los Muertos 2014 at SOMArts.
Over the years how has the Day of the Dead at your cultural center changed or evolved dramatically? At what moment, did you realize this celebration was more than just a festivity but had a life of its own?
"SOMArts’ Dia de los Muertos exhibit has evolved a lot over the years, he said. It’s still an exhibit very much rooted in its Mexican cultural roots. but technology said Rio Yañez, has definitely shaped the aesthetics of the show." "Altars and installations in the show now include video projections, neon lights, glowing blacklights, and immersive sound. With computers and digital technology being so accessible to artists it’s really opened up a lot of possibilities for expanding the definition of what an altar (for Dia de Los Muertos) is. One popular installation from a few years back allowed, he pointed out, visitors to log into their facebook accounts at which point an altar to yourself would be generated based on the information in your facebook page." No doubt, technology's innovations have made an impact over the past 15 years since the exhibit first began.
Curious I asked, What are some of the aspects to this celebration/event that you are most proud of and thankful for?
"I’m most proud that the exhibit is so diverse, he said, that it brings so many ideas from many cultures on what it means to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead." "I feel an exhibit like this could only exist in the Bay Area," he added. "There are so many regional and cultural exchanges in the show and I’m proud that they are all very personal and sincere."
When giving tours or making presentations to visitors, what is it that people respond to most about the exhibit/celebration?
"A lot of people respond to how interactive the exhibit is Yañez said. One of the best characteristics of our show is how much it encourages participation by the public." "Many of the installations and altars allow visitors to write, draw, search, and create inside of them. It’s a unique chance to have a very personal and creative experience with an art exhibit." This is something that Cynthia Tom and other artists who have participated over the years find very healing and transforming.
Is there any one thing about the exhibit/celebration that stands out in your mind that people visiting the center seem to gravitate to the most?
"Everyone has their own unique connection to what they see in the exhibit," he said. "Someone might come to the exhibit and see altars for a loved one, such as the case of friends of Holly Schneider a local artist and performer
who has three altars dedicated to her in the exhibit." "Some people connect with the larger issues addressed by the altars, he said, which include everything from alzheimer’s to Police violence." "Others make connections to regional representations on scales small and large, from San Francisco and Oakland to Asia and Africa."
And, then I asked, is there anything that people say or express as they walk away from the exhibit? What do you think they take with them?
"Here are quotes from some of the surveys visitors filled out anonymously as they walked through the exhibition this year," he said.
"All of it is such a deep call to connect and remember and love and live fully in whatever time we have."
"My eyes and heart are full."
"Celebrating these cultural narratives is so vital to keeping the spirit of this city alive."
"The exhibition was truly a moving and transformative experience. Many emotions and memories were evoked that I didn't realize I was harboring, so I am walking out with a better understanding of myself."
Many make it a point to see the exhibit each year. For some it is a family tradition. For this year's exhibit alone, "the opening event was attended by over 750 people," said Yañez. He noted that many attendees of the opening later return during gallery hours while the exhibition is on view, or bring friends and family to see the show because it moved them. The atmosphere of the opening is celebratory and social, and features live music, performance and an opportunity to talk to the artists. This too is something that Cynthia cherishes
because it is another way in which she can connect and help others transform their lives through the power of art. "The altars often evoke many emotions, and some people want a viewing experience that involves quiet reflection, said Yañez, so they return during gallery hours when it is quieter."
Cynthia Tom is anticipating a similar sort of experience from visitors to her upcoming exhibit entitled 'Alchemy, Chapter 3: surReal Estate.' She and fellow artist Cris Matos are the creators of this one-of-a-kind art exhibit, experience series. "Cris Matos is my true collaborator, she said, talking a bit about "Alchemy, Chapter 2" "That show from last year was dedicated to Rene and my wish for his cancer to move on from his body and for his health, she said. Rene Yanez has been an inspiration to Cynthia and she wanted to express her gratitude.
In keeping with the multi-cultural and cross-cultural aspects of the SOMArts Day of The Dead exhibit, Cynthia and Cris put together "Alchemy, Chapter 2" last year as an installation, infusing the Chinese and Latin cultural practices regarding medicinal herbs. "We are interested in connecting people with their consciousness, to see their life from different perspectives, to think about things in their lives in a new and different way," said Cynthia Tom. "We believe the soul is timeless, she said, our bodies are just vessels here, our souls are meant to learn and teach and then move on." The madness of the world can be such a stress upon the human psyche and Cynthia considered the 'Alchemy, Chapter 2' installation from last year as a way to express the need to heal.
She sees the connection and her upcoming exhibit in the Alchemy series, "Alchemy Chapter 3: surreal Estate" fits in and flows well with the "Visions of Twilight: Dia de Los Muertos 2014 theme.
For the Yañez family and others Dia de Los Muertos this year also speaks of another topic that ties into that experience of death and loss, is the sense of displacement. The exhibit's founder Rene Yañez noted that "this year's exhibition focuses on the evictions of families, artists, cultural centers and non-profit spaces (of the Mission District), calling upon artists to question and challenge the officials and polices that are destroying the cultural fibers of the city and the Bay Area." Yañez spoke from experience because the Yañez family (just last year in 2013) was among the many evicted from the Mission District.
This is another reason why Cynthia Tom and other artists are determined to express themselves, and the deeper themes in the hope that a raised consciousness will foster a stronger outcry for justice and equality in a city that is becoming more divided on various levels.
For more information about Visions of Twilight: Dia de Los Muertos at SOMArts Cultural Center, see the web page for exhibits and a list of all participating artists.
And to learn more about all events and details about SOMArts visit the SOMArts web site.