Graveyard Fun

New Orleans’ Carnivalesque Day of the Dead

Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos is migrating north, and in New Orleans it found a hospitable welcome as sugar skulls, installation artists, and Anne Rice celebrate death in life.

11.01.14 10:50 AM ET

In one of the subtler dramas of immigration, the Mexican ritual called Day of the Dead—home altars and cemetery-visits surrounding November 1, All Saints Day—has spread like a rushing river to such gringo outposts as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Tucson, and New Orleans.

Day of the Dead parades follow a cross-cultural flow, embellishing Halloween stylizations of the dancing skeleton. The calavera, or decorated skull, is an archetype of Mexican popular culture.

Courtesy Skinz n Bonez

Mexico’s Dia de Muertos custom of decorating home altars with blossoms, candles, fruit, and photographs, like the visits of the faithful to cemeteries, scattering flowers and sharing meals among the graves, bespeak a human welcome to the beloved dead residing in the world of the spirits.

Roots of this tradition lie deep in the cultural memory of Mesoamerican Indians. Before the 16thcentury, Spanish conquest, the Aztecs saw the skull as a symbol of rebirth. They envisioned warriors lost in battle, and women who died in childbirth, as honored spirits, circling the sun like hummingbirds.

As missionary priests transplanted Christian rituals, Indians embraced the idea of purgatory, a zone of souls waiting for release, by inviting family spirits to the feast of autumn harvest. As the fusion of Indian and Spanish tradition evolved, public festivities took a commercial turn.

In the early 1900s, stores in Mexican towns and cities began selling cookie-and-sugar calaveras, or skulls. Today parents give the sweet skulls to children, and lovers share calaveras like valentines.

“We decorate our houses with death’s heads, we eat bread in the shape of bones on the Day of the Dead, we love the songs and stories in which death laughs and cracks jokes,” Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate wrote in his famous book on Mexico, The Labyrinth of Solitude, “but all this boastful familiarity does not rid us of the question we all ask: What is death? We have not thought up a new answer.”

New Orleans conceptual artist Soren Vandegaard was fashioning his own set of answers on a milky afternoon this week while rebuilding his large side yard at 2750 Bienville Street into a labyrinthine walkway of overhead lights, calavera figures, a loop-tape of gonging bells and ten corrals with spot-lit paintings of Latin women amid arrangements of skeleton faces.

“The harvest, the solstice—these are days of the dead, when the sun loses its battle against the night,” said Vandegaard, 43, whose Scandinavian name belies hometown Catholic roots in New Orleans, where he and an older brother attended Jesuit High School.

Vandegaard’s installation is a project of the arts collective RoyalMenagerie.com. Entitled “Dia De Los Muertos,” the installation opens on All Soul’s Eve, Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and can be viewed by pedestrians next week.

This MidCity neighborhood took five feet of water in Hurricane Katrina, and today has many residents from Honduras and El Salvador. Vandegaard and his partner, Mindy Nunez, bought their two-story house after it underwent post-Katrina renovations.

The overhead light string hung listless in daylight as the artist arranged a painting of a young Latina in a white mask, with hibiscus blossoms in her hair, on the blue side wall of a warehouse straddling the yard.

“You can take the teachings of the church as an updating of other beliefs about the seasons and why things work as they do,” said Vandegaard, warming to his topic. “Death is all about rebirth. When the crops are done, it’s time to prepare the land for spring planting.”

Skeletons and calavera motifs, surrounding Latin women, feature prominently in his paintings. As an influence, Vandegaard credits Mexico’s popularizing artist of the skeleton image, “the master, Posada.”

An engraver and illustrator, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) generated scores of skeleton pictures in penny-press newspapers, images of now-iconic status that inspired Mexico’s major 20thcentury muralists, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

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“There’s a duality in embracing death as a natural function of life,” says Vandegaard. “Posada used the skeleton as a way of talking about politics, commenting on life.”

Posada’s skeletons have long reach on Day of the Dead expressions in many parts of the calavera’s diaspora, strikingly so with Claudia Gehrke, professionally known as Mardi Claw, a muralist, painter, mask-maker and whirlwind force in the New Orleans culture of second lines, as the seasonal parades with brass band musicians are called.

“We’ve taken Carnival and wrapped it around Day of the Dead,” she says.

Her group, Skin n Bonez, marched Thursday night with the Krewe de Boo parade from the Bywater neighborhood, a bohemian enclave, into the French Quarter, where escalating rents have driven out many artists.

Skinz n Bonez performed Friday night for a Halloween welcome outside Republic of New Orleans music club for the novelist Anne Rice, on a return trip for the Vampire L’Estat Coronation Ball, an event themed on her fabled character.

Rice, a New Orleans native who wrote many novels here, relocated to La Jolla, Cal. several years ago.

“When she steps out of the limo, Anne will be escorted by Wild Man John and Queen Kim of the Wild Tchoupitoulas,” said Claw, before the event, referring to a black Mardi Gras Indian tribe known for street chants and hand percussive rhythms. “We’ll all be singing.”

For all of Marti Claw’s high-octane theatrics, her life craved a spiritual lift in 1990, when she was living in Oregon and her father died.

“I was deeply depressed and pulled myself out of it by embracing Day of the Dead,” she says. “I did an altar in my house, and got friends to bring pictures of their family members. I decorated with marigolds, which are considered the flower of the dead. I planted my garden with them and left petals leading to the door. I did a lot of research in what I was doing.”

After moving to Arizona, Claw visited New Orleans for the winter carnival season (which climaxes on Mardi Gras) in the late ’90s, and relocated in 2001. Four years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit, 80 percent of the city went underwater, at an average level of four feet.

Living in the blue collar St. Roch neighborhood for weeks before electricity was restored, she watched workers from Mexico and Central America pour into the city to take the hard, gritty work of demolitions and stripping interiors down to wooden studs before hanging new sheetrock.

Seeing so many Latinos, Claw says, drove her “to blend Day of the Dead images into my paintings. I did a logo of skeletons drinking beer and skeletons second-lining [parading] past broken down houses.”

“I have a deep respect for Posada’s work,” she says. “I have always looked at him as the one artist from Mexico who made the calavera style so popular. He is probably the most recognizable calavera artist in the world. I don’t think there is a calavera artist who hasn’t looked to his work for inspiration in that colorful, smiling skeleton run amok.”

But popularizing any symbol has its aesthetic hazards; the farther the symbol travels from the taproot, the more difficult it is to maintain the elemental power of its place in the moment, the culture of its time.

Posada packed his skeleton images with arresting life-like details that capture a certain horror, as the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, spread violence from the countryside to the cities.

He worked in an age before the saturation of visual media. Movies were still silent when he died in 1913 at the age of 61. He was a widower whose only son had already predeceased him. Drinking heavily and in a bad state at the end of his life, he was buried in a pauper’s tomb.

It is tempting to think that Posada would be proud of how far his calavera images have traveled. From the few photographs of him, we see a stout man with deep Indian features, a thick mustache and stoic face.

It is more tempting to picture him with a begrudging grin. 

Jason Berry writes from New Orleans. His books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II and a novel, Last of the Red Hot Poppas.