Jose Antonio Madrazo brings Day of the Dead to shadow boxes

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      Celebration of Day of the Dead: Jose Antonio Madrazo
      At the Ferry Building Gallery until November 14

      One of the most striking aspects of contemporary Mexican folk culture is how much it draws from pre-Columbian forms and beliefs. An example? The skulls and skeletal figures seen in Aztec and Mixtec representations of Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death, find persistent expression in the folk-art form of calacas. These playful little ceramic figurines of living skeletons—along with marzipan skulls, cut-paper banners, ghoulish masks, and offerings of food, drink, and flowers—are associated with celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As seen in the Jose Antonio Madrazo exhibition at the Ferry Building Gallery in West Vancouver, the dead dance, sing, hug, kiss, smoke, drink, roast chicken, sell tacos, get married, have babies, betray their spouses, assume yoga positions, and, well, basically do all the things the living do.

      Our Celtic-derived, trick-or-treat-style Halloween—Allhallows Eve—gets some play in Mexico, but it’s the two following days, All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2, during which Mexicans encounter their ghosts and commune with their dearly departed. For about 36 hours, the living party it up with the dead, often in graveyards lit with massed candles, then send them back to the place they came from.

      Madrazo, who was born in Mexico City and is based in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, pursued careers in industry, music promotion, and design before hitting on the idea of staging Day of the Dead tableaux within nichos or shadow boxes. Made of metal and glass, nichos were originally used as household shrines to Catholic saints. Employing local artisans and farm folk in their production, and drawing on a number of folk-art forms, including calacas, miniature masks, glass beads, painted bottle caps, and tin charms such as milagros and recuerdos, Madrazo has seen his Day of the Dead nichos sold and collected worldwide.

      Their appeal is obvious: they are visually charming and may employ amusing—or groaningly awful—wordplay, along with plentiful American pop-culture references (yes, globalization has infiltrated Day of the Dead tableaux). A scene with a skeletal figure on a Harley Davidson is titled Bone to Be Wild; a vampy blond calaca is named Marrowlyn Monroe; a rock band is Dead Zeppelin. The work on display is organized thematically, with tableaux of dead celebrities, dead venders, dead makers of dead bread (pan de muerto, a Day of the Dead tradition), dead sweethearts (including gay and lesbian couples), dead partygoers, and dead yoga enthusiasts.

      Most appealing here are the painted elements, the colour-saturated and detailed depictions of hearts, flowers, leaves, and feathers that decorate the exteriors of the nichos. Still, the sheer number of these objects—189—with prices affixed to the labels and red dots abounding, seems to shift the “neo-folk” element of this show into the realm of el arte turistico. And, yes, the interior of the Ferry Building Gallery does, during the run of this show, somewhat resemble a shop on the Malecón in Puerto Vallarta. But the important message here, whether delivered affectionately or mockingly, is that the dead are very much with us. As we conjure them up out of the darkness, they affirm our presence in the light.