Fall has arrived and the museum is filled with new energy and excitement. One can feel it in the galleries — this time of the year there is always some Spanish in the air. I obviously like it a lot. Many families of Latino descent, especially coming from Southwest Detroit, visit our Ofrendas exhibition, which celebrates the Day of the Dead. The show is so popular with families and school field trips that this year it will run for six weeks (it used to be on view for only 10 days).
During my weekly museum walk-through before it opened, I stopped by to meet some of the artists and see how they were assembling their ofrenda altars, honoring the lives of close relatives, friends or community members who have passed away. As I came into the exhibition space I could hear some of them speaking in Spanish. The atmosphere was so positive that I introduced myself in my native language, “¡Hola, buenos días!” and asked them how it was going: “¿Cómo va todo?” They replied with a smile and right away expressed how grateful they were for the opportunity to participate. It was interesting to see how some of them worked in groups and others alone as they created these ephemeral monuments. They were extremely organized and rigorous about the installation. They also shared constructive feedback about the galleries and the spaces they were given. As I was leaving, I shook hands and told them “¡buen trabajo, gracias!” — good work, thanks! It was evident to me that this show was very important to them and that they were comfortable in the museum, which was very reassuring to me.
During the visit I noticed that there was a predominance of intense yellow and some light orange in the altars, the colors of the flowers used as an offering to the dead, called “Aztec marigolds.” In Mexico, these flowers are called cempasúchil, or flor de muertos (flower of the dead) and they are native to the land – in fact their name comes from the word “cempoaxóchitl” in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The altars are decorated with these flowers, whose petals, scattered from altar to gravesite, are there to guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. Since pre-Colombian times, cempasúchil have a strong symbolism in Mexico, which has blended with Christian beliefs related to the dead.
As these Aztec marigolds enliven our Ofrendas exhibition, I kept thinking that we have a long tradition of connecting the world of flora with that of the arts. Thanks to the work of the DIA’s Friends of Arts and Flowers, the museum welcomes our visitors with extraordinary flower arrangements all year around. I recently had the opportunity to speak to the group at their annual meeting, and underscored my interest on floral representations and their meaning across cultures. I, of course, started my presentation talking about the Aztec marigolds and our amazing Ofrendas exhibition. At the DIA, one can visit many of our galleries and find images of flowers in artworks created around the world. As you discover them, remember that flowers have inspired artists to symbolize our most inner feelings, from love to religious beliefs, touching all of us in the same fashion regardless of our background and origin. As I start the fall season, I am adding the word cempasúchil to my vocabulary to remember the native origins of this land and how the dead have been honored in Mexico for thousands of years.