Mexico Week kicked off at Rockefeller Center yesterday morning, October 27, inaugurating several days of cultural activities, artistic exhibitions, and a food and artisan market. The event, which takes place for the second consecutive year, coincides with Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Mexican holiday typically celebrated on November 1 and 2 commemorating loved ones who have passed away. It is co-organized by a group of Mexican public institutions — the Consulate General of Mexico in New York City, the Mexican Cultural Institute, and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City — in concert with Rockefeller Center.
A dozen catrinas designed by Cesar Menchaca, an artist whose studio employs Huichol artisans and whose work makes use of intricate crystal beads, are placed at various locations around the plaza and the Top of the Rock, the observation deck on top of Rockefeller Center.
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The sculptures, which portray American and Mexican artists and superstars including Georgia O’Keeffe, Diego Rivera, Marilyn Monroe, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, are plays on “La Catrina,” a skeletal figure who first appeared in a cartoon lithograph by José Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina, dressed in French aristocratic garb, was originally devised as a satire of upper-class Mexican women who masked their Indigenous identities. She has now become a ubiquitous symbol of Día de Muertos (sometimes also known as Día de los Muertos).
Visitors found it refreshing to see joyful depictions of death. “I love the mixture of the macabre and the beautiful. The skill and the colors are so vivid,” Romy Viliunas, who was visiting from England, told Hyperallergic. He added that he enjoyed the “pastiches” of “Charlie Chaplin, all the famous people, and even a guy smoking a cigarette.”
Carefully arranged bouquets of brightly orange marigold flowers — a hallmark of the holiday representing the impermanence of life — dapple the ofrenda, an altar constructed to honor the memory of loved ones, set up in front of 30 Rock. Alongside the flowers are abstract charcoal-gray skulls, candles, and offerings of tequila. This year, the ofrenda is dedicated to modern Mexican sculptors, particularly those explored in contemporary artist Pedro Reyes’s book MONUMENTAL: The Public Dimension of Sculpture 1927-1979.
Flanking either side of the ofrenda are two of Menchaca’s alebrijes depicting a jaguar and Quetzlcoatl serpent deity, both mystical animals who guide souls to their proper destinations in the afterlife. Alebrijes, relatively modern artistic inventions, were made by Mexico City-based artist Pedro Linares in the early 20th century, representing vibrant, fantastical, folk beasts made of cardboard and papier-mâché. They have have since taken off in popularity and are now made in a variety of mediums.
One visitor, Kader Belatrache, called it a “relief” for the sculptures to infuse “light and color in death.”
“Most Occidental people are afraid of death: Death is black, death is the end,” said Belatrache, who identifies as as half-Arabic and half-French, contrasting it with the perspective that “death is the beginning of something.”
Prints by Posada are also on show in the lobby of 10 Rockefeller Plaza, commemorating the 170th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Over the course of his career and life, Posada, a political cartoonist and lithographer born in 1852, worked at several newspapers and publishing imprints, creatively documenting contemporary political events, the failures of government, and the plight of the people. Posada’s signature was to portray people using skulls and skeletons, popularizing that imagery and their association with Mexican nationhood and heritage.
Menchaca, who wore a t-shirt with an illustration of his Diego Rivera catrina near his Marilyn Monroe sculpture, said the exhibition as a whole contained 200 million crystal beads.
The catrinas, though depicting figures who are no longer with us, are “really an homage to life — people and artists who are still alive,” Menchaca said. “The passion that inspired this is being and believing in who we are, what we do, Mexican art, our roots, our culture.”