Sunday, November 3, 2013

Local Art Seen: Duluth All Souls Night

Last night Duluth celebrated a Northland version of Dia de los Muertos, or more commonly called All Souls Night. Its origins, date back to Aztec times in which the goddess Mictecacihuati, Lady of the Dead, was celebrated. It’s actually a two-day festival that corresponds with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. For those unfamiliar with South American history, one of the Spaniards' most potent tools for subduing the native culture in the Americas was the blending of Catholic religious ideas with pre-existing legends here. (e.g. Quetzlcoatl)

In preparation for the celebration of Dia de los Muertos people built altars (called ofrendas) which they decorated with sugar skulls, photos of deceased loved one, and the favorite foods and beverages including “pan de los muertos”, which is bread of the dead. So it was that the Great Hall in the Depot was filled last night with numerous altars emulating these ofrendas.

From 6:00-8:00 p.m. the celebration included drums, a parade around the library, stilters, and dancers accompanied of shouts of jubilation. Face painters were busily applying black and white face paint to all who were willing to wear the death masks. The festivities here then moved up to Sacred Heart where there were more displays, a poetry reading and music. Historically the event is an acknowledgement that death is a part of life. Locally, it is one more venue for the display of Mary Plaster’s enormous creations, though a whole host of people and organizations deserve the big thank you for making this happen.

For me, this Day of the Dead is associated with memories from my own year in Mexico. The larger than life puppets that Mary Plaster first began creating as part of the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater in South Minneapolis have their roots in these Mexico celebrations. Plaster, who lived in Mexico for three years herself, experienced first-hand a Dia de los Muertos there. I myself saw a similar celebration with its parade and enormous plaster figures while in Tepotzlan during Easter weekend in 1981 and it made an impression on me, so much so that Tepotzlan and nearby Cuernavaca became the starting point of my novel The Red Scorpion.


Three years later John Huston filmed Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano there in this setting on the southern slopes of the mountain where Mexico City resides. It is a region rich with history, a place of intersecting cultures, values and expectations. On its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, the Modern Library gave Lowry’s book a rank of #11. It is a story immersed in symbolism, its center being the collision of darkness and light in one man’s soul, on the Day of the Dead. Once you get into a certain frame of mind the closer you look, the less you see, until it is much too late.

But that's another story. And having passed through one more Day of the Dead in Duluth, we next approach Thanksgiving... and the Black Friday that follows in its wake. Darkness and light in a perpetual dance around a center that never holds. As it was in the beginning...

Photo top right courtesy Jean DeRider

1 comment:

maryplaster said...

All our websites and publicity state that we choose the name All Souls Night because it is the most inclusive title of many ancient holidays held at this time of year, including Samhain, Halloween, Day of the Dead and Feast of All Souls. For five years the festival in Duluth is post-modern in that we are inspired by but not limited to any one culture or religion and are developing what is relevant to our own time and place. We honor the ancestors as well as the future beings of all species.
"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." (Mary Harris "Mother" Jones)