Play­ing dead

Día de los Muer­tos pho­to­graphs by Wil­liam Frej at Peters Projects

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - Michael Abatemarco I The New Mex­i­can PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY WIL­LIAM FREJ

Un­like its Amer­i­can cousin Hal­loween, Mex­ico’s Día de los Muer­tos, which stretches over two days (Nov. 1 and 2), is more than cel­e­bra­tory; it’s cer­e­mo­nial. And it’s more than an evening of mere scary fun; it’s an ob­ser­vance, a means of hon­or­ing the dead through prayer as well as a spir­ited com­mem­o­ra­tion. Pho­tog­ra­pher Wil­liam Frej, a part-time res­i­dent of Mex­ico and Santa Fe, doc­u­mented Día de los Muer­tos pro­ces­sions in three ar­eas of the coun­try: Oax­aca, San An­tonino, and San Agustín Etla. His strik­ing images, awash in vi­brant col­ors and rich in de­tail, cap­ture the lively

pa­rades, cre­ativ­ity, and time that com­mu­ni­ties in th­ese ci­ties de­vote to fash­ion­ing wild and imag­i­na­tive cos­tumes. Frej is keenly aware of the con­trasts in­her­ent in Day of the Dead, whether it’s chil­dren with painted calav­era (skull) faces, a “tree of life” can­de­labra dec­o­rated with skele­tal Day of the Dead fig­ures, or an ofrenda (shrine) to the dead or­na­mented with a daz­zling dis­play of marigolds, pa­pel pi­cado in a mul­ti­tude of bright col­ors, burn­ing can­dles, sugar skulls and other con­fec­tions, and pho­to­graphs of de­parted loved ones. Frej shot this body of work dig­i­tally, us­ing in-cam­era ef­fects to en­hance the col­ors and light and give each im­age a lu­mi­nous and paint-like ap­pear­ance with lit­tle post-edit­ing of the images. But his prac­tice in­volves tra­di­tional darkroom work as well.

Vis­i­tors to Peters Projects are greeted by two largescale black-and-white ge­latin sil­ver prints, part of an on­go­ing se­ries that will soon cul­mi­nate in a mono­graph on the topic of lost or for­got­ten tem­ples and rit­ual spa­ces in re­mote lo­cales, some of them in Mex­ico. But it’s clear why Frej, a black-and-white pho­tog­ra­pher, chose to shoot in color for the Día de los Muer­tos project: Th­ese com­pelling works, num­ber­ing around 30 images, cap­ture the vi­brancy of the events sur­round­ing the an­nual fes­ti­vals.

Día de los Muer­tos is not with­out its frightening as­pects. The devil masks are sin­is­ter, and the an­gels — pal­lid fig­ures in white — are of­ten seen cov­ered in blood. A host of char­ac­ters are rep­re­sented, in­clud­ing the var­i­ous cala­cas, or skele­tons, such as Ca­t­rina, a pop­u­lar fe­male skele­ton dressed in an an­ti­quated Euro­pean dress and hat, of­ten de­picted car­ry­ing a bou­quet, and char­ac­ters from folk­lore such as La Llorona (the cry­ing woman), a wan­der­ing phan­tom who weeps for her drowned chil­dren.

The pres­ence of chil­dren at th­ese events, play­ing des­ig­nated roles, and Frej’s por­traits of them con­vey a sense of the deeply in­grained Day of the Dead tra­di­tion. It’s a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non chil­dren grow up with. Frej seems drawn to the chil­dren time and again, their alert eyes and ex­pres­sive faces vis­i­ble be­neath their white skull makeup. The ubiq­ui­tous shrines de­picted through­out the ex­hibit, some in ceme­ter­ies, un­der­score the no­tion that, in a con­tem­po­rary con­text, th­ese events memo­ri­al­ize not just the dead but the dis­ap­peared as well. One such im­age, My Son, Lost in Chi­a­pas, shows a mother by an ofrenda made in honor of her child.

With Hal­loween upon us, Día de los Muer­tos isa timely show. Granted, there are worlds of dif­fer­ence be­tween the two hol­i­days. Amid the elab­o­rate masks, cos­tumes, and faces painted to re­sem­ble devils, an­gels, and ghosts, many of which would not be out of place with trick-or-treaters in a U.S. city, lies the specter of the dead — the real dead. This as­pect of the an­nual fes­tiv­i­ties, which may strike some as dark and somber, is not nec­es­sar­ily so. Frej, with­out need to explicate through writ­ten de­scrip­tion, im­bues his can­did pho­to­graphs with im­port, and each con­veys an ex­cit­ing but mean­ing­ful as­pect of the Day of the Dead fes­tiv­i­ties. In other words, the ex­hibit is more a crash course than an ex­ten­sive sur­vey, but it deep­ens our ap­pre­ci­a­tion for this cul­tural phe­nom­e­non while spark­ing our cu­rios­ity to learn more.

Wil­liam Frej, with­out need to explicate through writ­ten de­scrip­tion,

im­bues his can­did pho­to­graphs with im­port, and each con­veys an ex­cit­ing but mean­ing­ful as­pect of the Day of the Dead fes­tiv­i­ties.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.