Day of the Dead in art
A traditional display announces “Amore Eterno “ (Eternal Love).

Photo by Second Avenue Firehouse.

Day of the Dead in art

Story By: RICK CHALIFOUX
10/29/2015


BAY SHORE—Last Saturday evening marked the opening reception for a special “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) art exhibition at the Second Avenue Firehouse in Bay Shore. The exhibit, which runs on weekends until Nov. 8, features traditional Oaxacan altar boxes created by local artists and students from Bay Shore High School. The presentation gave visitors a glimpse into the lifestyles and values of a foreign, yet not too distant culture in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. 

In Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the year’s biggest festivals is a celebration of the dead. For one day, spirits of the ancestors are believed to return to this world to spend some time with the living. In effect, streets, homes, communities and cemeteries come alive with imagery evoking the memory of lost loved ones. 

This particular project offered local individuals the opportunity to participate in the process of creating a public altar of remembrance. However, its concept was more open-ended, as participants were able to create murals for any individual or concept they wished. Subjects included a mural for Bay Shore graduates who died in the Vietnam War, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, a piece dedicated to victims of domestic violence, as well as more traditional renderings.

“The beauty is that this could be done in so many different ways,” said Susan Barbash, who helped curate the event and utilized New York State grant funding to cover its cost. “You don’t have to be Mexican or Latino to find something that you can express.”

Barbash noted that this year’s exhibit was a great success, and that they are already looking to expand next year’s program to feature more local artists and public participation. Its inspiration stemmed from a film screening by Carolyn Kallenborn, who created a documentary film named “Life and the Dead” showcasing various ways that Oaxacan communities celebrate the living and the dead.

In addition to the altar boxes, other traditional Oaxacan artwork was on display—most of it from West Islip resident Vicki Ragan’s personal collection. Ragan, who is Barbash’s sister-in-law, spent a number of years living in Oaxaca with her husband, Shepard Barbash, with whom she created multiple books and articles on their culture.

“We were always attracted to Oaxaca because their society is very indigenous,” said Ragan. “There are several different ethnic groups in a small space with their own distinctive ways, languages and celebrations.”

Ragan explained why and how the Day of the Dead holiday has become so integral to Mexican culture, particularly in Oaxaca.

“Part of it is that they’re a less mobile society than we are,” she said. “Most of them still live in the same town where their grandparents are buried, and they assume that even after they pass they’ll ultimately find their way home.”

Looking ahead, Ragan said that the ultimate goal is to garner further participation and engagement from more members of the local Mexican population.

“Their influence exists here, too,” said Ragan. “We’re trying to break that barrier and connect the two worlds.”

The Second Avenue Firehouse is located at 17 Second Avenue in Bay Shore. The exhibit is open Saturdays and Sundays, 12-4 p.m. and on Friday by appointment by calling 516-639-8575.