THE ART OF DYING
As the Aztec artists before him, Elmer Sedillo allows death to inspire him.
Sedillo is a young graffiti and tattoo artist in Albuquerque, NM, whose Day of the Dead paintings pay homage to his grandfather and other family members. He explores the different and conflicting feelings of losing male, female and young family members. The graphite paintings blend old and new themes mixing tattoo art with stipple and scratch board techniques.
In “Monster” Sedillo’s grandfather Ernest sits next to a hulking ‘50s car its windshield cracked, blood trickles down the door, the license plate reads ‘DRT POR’. Ernest wears a chic pork pie black hat, he smokes a small brown cigarette, his arms are fully tattooed. Burnt and dying trees heighten the morbidity. The painting is a bridge between today’s world, the Pachuco subculture of the 1940s and the afterlife.
“I like to create beautiful images and in “Monster” I’ve tried to create the feelings of regret. It’s about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and new beginnings,” Sedillo says. “My dad was a grease monkey and I absorbed a lot of that world as a child and saw how the traditional day of the dead iconography of spider webs and the rosary was used. I like to use scratch board art and piece things together. It’s all experimental and a roll of the dice.”
Tut, the Taj and the Terracotta Soldiers
For artists through the ages, death wasn’t something to wallow in, but the catalyst to create some of the planet’s most vibrant folk and fine art. India’s Taj Mahal, China’s Terracotta soldiers and the funerary stele of ancient Greece are all considered some of art history’s master works and all were conceived to assuage death.
Perhaps no other culture’s fixation with death led to as much artistic creativity as the tomb builders and their artisans who stocked the burial chambers of Egypt’s pharaohs. Their output includes papyrus paintings, pottery and sculpture reflecting an era of Pharaoh worship. The tomb art helped shepherd the Pharaohs and their relatives into a happy afterlife. Papyrus drawings depict their successful battles as well as nature scenes that would provide solace for their new journey.
The Taj Mahal is perhaps the world’s most scintillating and uplifting mausoleum. Its minaret dome whiteness dazzles the dusty Agra plain. Its harmonious blending of calligraphy and bas relief flourishes depicting flowers along with its precious stone inlaid tombs make it the piece de resistance of Muslim art. Love inspired the Taj. Moghul Emperor Shah Jaham built the mausoleum to celebrate the death of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1632.
It wasn’t love, but war that inspired another of the world’s most spectacular art of death moments. Before China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC, he commissioned a large army of artists to build a replica of his entire army so it could be buried with him. His mausoleum outside today’s Xian is still being excavated and so far over 8,000 terracotta solders, 130 chariots, 520 horses along with miscellaneous acrobats and musicians carved in terracotta were found. Each has its own facial expressions, hair styles and weaponry. They are aligned as if they were in battle formation and all are life-sized. This world heritage site has produced touring museum shows and next to the King Tut exhibit in 1972, the Xian solders produced the biggest demand for tickets at the British Museum in 2008.
Death Takes an African Holiday
Throughout Africa today, death triggers both an extended outpouring of grief and creativity. Perhaps no other country crafts death as colorfully as Ghana whose GA people have been making elaborate coffins since 1945. Coffins in the form of roosters, cell phones, Mercedes, Coke bottles and the Empire State building are part of the coffin maker’s oeuvre.
Carving is a common artistic expression for Africa’s funerary artists. Cameroon’s Nsoro, a secret men’s society, create elaborate headdresses that are worn atop the heads of dancers to create awe and honor the dead. In Madagascar, the Mahafaly create large wooden stele with elaborate geometric designs that also includes humans, birds and the crescent horned cattle they revere.
Kenya’s graveside vigango carvings have sparked a cultural and art world controversy in the last decade. These totems created by the Mijikenda people of coastal Kenya were meticulously carved to honor a secret men’s society called the Gohu and are a link between the living and spirit world. Each piece is unique and is made to calm the spirits to ward off crop failures, illness and bad luck. Food and other sacrifices are left at vigango sites.
In the 1970s they became a collector’s item and started appearing in art galleries in the U.S. and Europe. By the 1990s prices for individual vigango had soared to $10,000 each and 19 U.S. museums held them in their collections. The dark side of the trade was that most of the pieces on exhibit outside Kenya were looted leaving communities bereft. In the last decade a repatriation campaign was sparked to return vigango back to Kenya. In 2009 California State University at Fullerton sent its collection back to Kenya. The heirs of Broadway producer Lewis Allen sent nine pieces back to Kenya in 2007 from Allen’s Park Avenue apartment in New York.
Perhaps no other country revels in its dead as creatively and commercially as Mexico does today. Throughout the country in late October and early November, Day of the Dead celebrations are held and an outpouring of art accompanies the fiestas with elaborate masks, paintings, carvings and gravesite decorations. Skeletons and skulls are the most obvious motifs but variations on the theme abound. The celebrations attract thousands of tourists who buy art, visit gravesites and take mole cooking classes.
The underpinnings date from the Aztecs who took the month of August off to spend it with the spirits who had come back to eat, drink and carouse with the living. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s they were aghast at the Aztec’s art. They feared death and saw the Aztec traditions as a repudiation of Catholicism. The holiday survived and blended Aztec and Catholic icons that are seen today in the major celebrations in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. In the San Antonino Cemetery, gravesites are festooned with flowers and prizes are awarded to the ‘best decorated gravesite’. Bandas roam cemeteries playing lively music. In thousands of cemeteries throughout the country offerings are brought to gravesites that include art and favorite objects of the deceased. Beer cans, crucifixes, shoes, tools are among the myriad offerings and recollections.
Artists throughout the Latin world create day of the dead art and at Masks y Mas, an Albuquerque gallery, the work of 50 day of the dead artists is displayed including Elmer Sedillo’s. Federico Kiko Torres owns the gallery and his vibrant collection ranges from brightly painted gourds that replicate Aztec motifs to the ultra modern work of Sedillo. Woodcarver Julian Romero’s work includes an elongated skeleton dunking a basketball on a ponderosa pine court. A Bonnie and Clyde painting by Lionel Spotted Horse communicates the Southwest’s not-so-subtle obsession with love, death and violence. Clyde is in a blue zoot suit puffing a big stogie while wielding a Thompson machine gun. Bonnie is in a pink dress gripping a gun. A red heart floats above the amorous skeletons pierced by a bullet.
“We are all related in the Southwest because we have the same outlook that we will all be together in the afterlife. Day of the Dead takes many artistic forms, but it’s about embracing death and taking away the fear,” Torres said. “There is always something beautiful in death.”