Thursday, November 8, 2012

Death celebrated in New Orleans

By Doug MacCash, The Times-Picayune
Day of the Dead altar dedicated to musician'Uncle' Lionel Batiste is on display in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art through Nov. 9. The colorfully macabre installation was assembled by Southern University art professor Cynthia Ramirez, who has a special relationship with the Mexican memorial tradition.

As she added tissue paper flowers, small toys and other finishing touches to the altar, Ramirez explained that though she has Mexican roots, she grew up in Virginia, far from most traditions such as Dia de los Muertos. But she’s forever bound to the Nov. 2 holiday since that’s also her birthday.

Learning about the Day of the Dead, Ramirez said, was “kind of like a journey for me to find me, you know; to find my cultural background. What I’ve found in this tradition is something very unique and wonderful. So it’s become an everyday part of my life.”
Ramirez said that Day of the Dead altars have typical elements such as artificial skulls and marigold flowers that can be traced all the way back to Aztec times. Somewhere in history, the pre-Columbian traditions blended with Catholicism to produce the altars known today, which are decorated with comical skeleton sculptures, skull-shaped candy and other death-defying touches.

Every altar, Ramirez said, should have components that symbolize the elements of life. Vegetables and fragrant substances, such as coffee represent the earth. Fluttering tissue flags indicate the wind. Candles symbolize fire – though actual candles aren’t allowed in the museum. And water is always provided, Ramirez said, to slake the thirst of the departed.
Photos and possessions of the recently dead are included as well. Ramirez said that when building altars, she chooses subjects who have contributed to New Orleans culture. At the last New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Ramirez created an altar for Coco Robicheaux, who died in November 2011. For the Ogden altar, Ramirez chose to honor 'Uncle' Lionel Batiste, who died in July. A selection of photos of Batiste, plus Treme Brass Band CDs and a toy drum represent the musician, who Ramirez described as a “passionate, prominent and unique individual.”

“To me,” Ramirez said, “he just embodies a cultural worker in New Orleans; what New Orleans is about.”

As Ramirez explained, the somewhat celebratory tone of a Day of the Dead altar is different from the somber tone of most American memorials.
“You’re not remembering their death; you’re remembering their life.”

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