Remembering Nuestros Angelitos at the Oakland Museum of California

The heatwaves are beginning to subside. The days are ending earlier in darkness. Halloween takes place in less than a fortnight, and so too do the Días de los Muertos, or Days of the Dead. This is the time of year to honor, celebrate and mourn the dead. Rituals + Remembrance, a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, gathers artwork that honors the dead from a variety of different cultural viewpoints. Expanding on the Latin American Días, this exhibit includes African-American and Asian-American as well as Chicano and Latino artists.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a large and vibrant mandala by local artist Nancy Hom. Gathering Bay Area names of the recently deceased, Hom’s intricate mandala nestles duotone images of homes and buildings in bright green and fuchsia alongside the names and faces of the dead. Paper butterflies and flowers and replicas of oranges build inward toward the center symbol of an endless knot. One way of interpreting that knot is through the lens of Tibetan Buddhism. It can represent the endless cycle of life and rebirth, or as Hom put it, the soul inhabits a body for a time and moves on. Imagining the body as a way station for the soul in its ongoing journey is a colorful, comforting and hopeful way of remembering the dead. 

The mandala is surrounded by a sky blue labyrinth of sorts, painted or decalled onto the gallery floor. Visitors are encouraged to walk its path, pausing from time to time to ponder the affirmations that encourage breathtaking and feeling at peace. The tone of the exhibit though is both solemn, and not solemn, depending on which corner of the room you find yourself drawn. Wandering around, it’s hard not to be struck by the memory of an absent mother or brother, the good, the bad and everything in between comes back to haunt you all at once.

The most poignant display of the strange and irksome power of grief, however, is not the creation of a professional artist. Nuestros Angelitos (Our Little Angels) is a collection of over thirty boxed dioramas hanging together on a sombre colored wall. This installation was organized by the Alameda County Public Health Department and made by the participants in their MADRE program. According to the website, “MADRE (Maternal Access and Linkages for Desired Reproductive Health) provides access to care for underserved women who have experienced the tragedy of losing a baby either during pregnancy or at birth.”

At first, taking the wall in at a distance, you miss the odd and specific details, like those of Joseph Cornell. Up close, there are the tiniest clothes in the promising, vivid pastels of newborns: pinks, blues, and yellows. There’s a note, a name, a hat, a rattle. The hopeful colors are immediately set against the plain fact that these are a mother’s memorial to her child. Collectively, the emotion is palpable and raw. The small boxed frames contain only days of a life, and call to mind the coffins the babies are buried in. It feels rare that these private thoughts are transformed and shared in a public space. Nuestros Angelitos acts as an arresting reminder that the Días de los Muertos are meant for the health and well being of the living. The dead, though beloved, are gone.

21st Annual Days of the Dead Community Celebration, Sunday, Oct. 25, 12-4:30 p.m., $11.95, at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St, Oakland, 510-318-8400.

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