Walking into SOMArts’ annual Día de los Muertos exhibit is like walking into a maze of altars. One space is transformed into multiple worlds — individual rooms filled with an artist’s hopes and memories, divided by translucent walls. In one room, hundreds of butterflies erupt from a bodice as a symbol of immigration. In another, dozens of frames hang around a loveseat, asking “WHAT DOES HOME LOOK LIKE FOR QUEER LATINX?”
The 43 altars are separated by opaque or translucent walls — one of René Yañez’s visions before he passed away in May 2018. “These were all things he was literally dictating from his deathbed in the hospital,” his son, Rio Yañez, says.
René Yañez was a visionary in his field. He was a founder of Galería De La Raza and the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, and was one of the first curators to pioneer a massive art exhibit around Día de los Muertos.
Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday meant to celebrate and honor loved ones who have passed away. Yañez started this kind of work back in the ’70s.
“My dad, René Yañez, started to curate Day of the Dead art exhibits. Each piece was given its own room, and no one had really ever done that before,” Río Yañez says.
Since René Yañez’s death, his son has taken up the exhibit’s responsibilities, continuing a 20-year legacy. “In 2006, he and I started working on the show together,” Río Yañez says. “And he kind of mentored me as a curator, working with artists. I had always grown up with Day of the Dead as a cultural practice and as an art form.”
Photo by Grace Li
This year’s theme, “City of Souls,” has a special significance. It will be honoring its founder’s life and work not just through murals and altars containing its likeness, but through the theme of this year’s exhibit: City of Souls.
“It’s kind of a spiritual sequel to an exhibit that René curated here in 2001, called City of Miracles. He had this vision of creating a city, where there were different buildings, and within those buildings there were different functions and different aesthetics,” Río Yañez says. “And he kind of wanted to visit that idea in 2018 but passed away before he realized his vision.”
Constructing the Dia de Los Muertos exhibit is no easy feat. SOMArts starts accepting submissions for altar proposals in May. After paring them down, it’s a matter of trying to puzzle 43 altars by 74 artists together to create a cohesive and dynamic art space. Architect Nick Gomez is responsible for much of this step.
“It’s almost like a math question on the SAT, trying to fit all the artists together,” Río Yañez says.
The themes in Dia de Los Muertos vary widely. For example, Terry Bautista and Kim Acebo Arteche’s altar is dedicated to Dawn Mabalon, a Filipina activist who fought hard for Stockton’s Little Manila and who passed away last year, in August 2018. Clips from Mabalon’s speeches and her personal life are projected onto a wall surrounded by archival material from her career.
“There’s a lot of home footage that puts into context who her family was and why she was so indignant about saving Little Manila,” Arteche says. Many of the altars in the City of Souls touch on activism and the intersection of politics and identity.
Concepts in the exhibit can be Bay Area specific — some altars are dedicated to San Francisco businesses lost by gentrification.
Others, like artist Elizabeth Addison’s altar, go beyond the reach of the Bay Area. Located at the front of the exhibit, her altar is filled with pictures of the children who have died in camps at the U.S.-Mexican border and beckons visitors to inscribe messages on leaves and add them to a growing tree.
Just outside of Addison’s altar is a projected mural of Jeff Adachi, a former San Francisco Public Defender who passed away in February 2019, and René Yañez, calling for visitors to “Protect your people,” “Make America Mexico again,” and “Resist.” It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the City of Souls, which ends how it starts: with René Yañez. At the end of the maze is a rendering of René Yañez’s face, lit in purple.
“We’ve spent the past year trying to bring that concept to life — to realize what he wanted to do,” Río Yañez says about City of Souls. “And here we are.”
“Día de los Muertos” Through Nov. 8 at SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St., Free; 415-863-1414, somarts.org.