“Día de los Muertos,” an exhibit organized by Unidad Latina en Acción, or ULA, features a 10-year archive of puppets made for New Haven’s annual Día de los Muertos parade — the first time these puppets are on display.
The exhibit will be on view at Artspace New Haven from Nov. 14 to Nov. 24. According to Sarah Fritchey, curator and gallery director at Artspace, the ULA is a grassroots organization that supports immigrant and worker rights in Greater New Haven. It organizes the Día de los Muertos parade each year through Fair Haven.
Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the “incredible unity between life and death,” said Pedro López, curator of the Día de los Muertos exhibition. The festival is celebrated differently across the American continent by indigenous communities and their diasporas. Both the ULA’s parade and the exhibition aim to highlight these multicultural influences by showing non-Mexican iterations of the festival.
“This isn’t just Latin American art but art that reflects a tumultuous movement for the rights and benefits of migrants,” López said.
John Lugo, director at the ULA, said that the group began New Haven’s annual parade in 2011. Lugo described the parade as an attempt by the Latino community to leave a “cultural footprint” on the city. He first worked with Stefanie Loeb and Hector Hernandez, who helped with artistic direction. Since then, ULA has collaborated with several artists-in-residence to organize the parade.
López, the curator of the exhibit, is ULA’s current artist-in-residence. He came to New Haven from Guatemala over four years ago via a grant from the Commission on Human Rights. The grant supports the creation of protest art.
Lugo said that the parade is a “very political event,” since every piece is thematically linked to “denunciation” — the public condemnation of someone or something. This year’s parade focused on environmental destruction, specifically the destruction of biodiversity occurring as a result of the burning of the Amazon. Themes from past years include the indigenous cultures of New Haven’s immigrant community, the ongoing human rights crisis in Mexico and President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the United States’ southern border.
“An art piece can be more powerful than a speech, because as humans we are symbolic beings,” López said.
The Día de los Muertos parade pieces are on view at Artspace due to the proposition of ULA activist Rosario Caicedo. Caicedo invited Fritchey to see puppets from past years of the parade. These puppets commemorate historical protests and revolutions, and pay homage to the loss or disappearance of individual lives. Fritchey said that, upon seeing the puppets, she thought they looked like “larger-than-life masterpieces.”
Once Fritchey spoke to López about the history and symbolism of each piece, she felt the need to display the art in an exhibition. She said that while the parade inspired “tons of little conversations,” a show would allow a “more focused, long-form talk” and help viewers explore a detailed history of each piece.
The exhibition features 107 objects. It includes the skeleton of a mariachi, masks made in the Mexican, Honduran and Oaxacan styles and Guatemalan kites called “barriletes.”
López described the puppet-making as a “collective project.” He invited community members to create the pieces together, regardless of their level of skill or qualification.
“Art is really important to the Latina migrant population,” López said. “Although they have suffered a lot in history, happiness and celebration means a lot to us as a group.”
Fritchey said that through collective story-telling and collective art-making, the exhibition reflects nuanced differences that emerge from different versions of the same story. She added that this is emblematic of a “shared experience” of humanitarian crises, presented through ULA’s lens.
López noted the significance of involving several artists in the display of Latino art in an “exclusive space” like Artspace. “We got those who aren’t traditionally part of our community to learn about our culture,” he said.
Fritchey said that Artspace is a “bridge” between the different communities that make up Greater New Haven. She described the show as an “incredible way” to bring a well-known event to downtown New Haven.
“Hopefully the exhibit opens doors, so that people have more opportunities to meet one another and there are more contact points between different groups of friends and makers,” Fritchey said.
Artspace New Haven is located on 50 Orange St.
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