Fotografía • Enfoques
All the photos are property of ©Roxana Allison, 2018 1 diciembre, 2018
This article should have been written more than three weeks ago. For many reasons I could not finish it when it was more relevant. Now everyone is focused on Christmas and the typical seasonal songs resonate everywhere, the fairy lights like every year have begun to wrap shop windows and Xmas trees have popped up all around whilst Black Friday offers turned people crazy.
On November 2nd we were invited to the Day of the Dead Festival organised by the Victoria & Albert Museum (V & A) in London, one of the most prestigious and internationally recognised institutions with a huge art collection that is hard to cover in a single day’s visit, as part of its parallel program to the exhibition of textiles belonging to Frida Kahlo.
Months ago Raul, my partner, was contacted by the museum to create the artwork for the festival’s printed program thanks to the recommendation of a follower on social media. The museum wanted ideally a Mexican artist to create it for it to be authentically Mexican. When Raul sent over the first drafts they were blown away. As part of the agreement, we would hold a stall with our brand La Chuleta Press on the market inside the Raphael Gallery during the event.
We shared the room alongside another independent business and a group of musicians and dancers promoting Mexican culture in the UK. At the far right was a Day of the Dead altar (ofrenda) dedicated to artists and personalities among which were the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp and Frida Kahlo to name a few. The other stalls around the room invited visitors to make sugar skull paper masks covering the gallery floor with children and adults colouring away, decorating their creations.
Visitors were curious to find out what we sold on our stall, and as soon as they discovered that Raul was the artist behind the illustration on the program they got excited, even more so to learn that he was Mexican, as if justice had finally been done by genuinely representing Mexico and one of its most unique traditions accurately.
As the night passed hundreds of people flooded the museum, many dressed as catrinas and catrines ready for the contest. The atmosphere was festive and although the celebration was not exactly how we live it in Mexico, this version is the most genuine witnessed in our ten years outside of Mexico organised by a non-Mexican institution with the vast majority of musicians, artists, dancers and presenters coming from Mexico or Latin America. This was achieved in great extent thanks to Claudia Palacios, a Mexican who’s made London her home for numerous years and who advised the organisers recommending the majority of those participating in the event. Both, the museum and Claudia successfully amalgamated the traditional with the new adapting it to the given environment.
The line-up offered contemporary and traditional popular Mexican music, folk dance, a handicraft and Mexican art market, face painting, a catrinas contest, a parade of gigantic skeletons and Mexican bingo among other activities. There were queues everywhere and the Spanish language resonated from corner to corner. Where did so many Mexicans come from!
In the Raphael Gallery, a stage on the left hand side presented three occurrences of a folk dance performance. People sang along to the melodies so close to our hearts: El Son de la Negra, El Jarabe Tapatío, La Llorona, Guadalajara, La Bruja and obviously El Cielito Lindo.
Despite the fact that people didn’t stop arriving through the night, as soon as the clock struck ten the event was over and done with as established in the program. We packed up quickly and made our way towards the main entrance. As we walked through the enormous reception and exited the building we realised we were surrounded by what resembled a spontaneous parade of catrinas that laughed, talked, sang and celebrated life while the freshness of the night embraced us. Such memory will stay with us for a long time.
Tired but extremely satisfied we met up with Claudia who without knowing us put us up at her house treating us as if we were lifelong friends. As expected she had her own Day of the Dead ofrenda in the front room; we chitchatted as she shared out some bread of the dead crowning our busy day with its softness and sweet orange flavour.
The presence of Mexico and its Day of the Dead in this side of the world is amazing. I suspect that its popularity abroad was first spurred by the film ‘Frida’ about the painter’s life interpreted by Salma Hayek and more recently by the James Bond film ‘Specter’ exporting internationally a hollywoodesque version of the Day of the Dead with little to do with the ancestral tradition however it contributed to putting Mexico and one of its most unique customs on the map.
Then came ‘Coco’ produced by Pixar Studios in 2017 to continue feeding the interest although I must admit that the story reflects better the traditional Day of the Dead than any other previous attempts including The Book of Life released in 2014.
Thanks to these feature films, many people have adopted, reinvented and adapted such celebration to their own culture. Likewise many businesses have taken advantage of what they assume is the Day of the Dead imagery for their marketing campaigns with the sole purpose of attracting consumers. You can now find on British supermarket shelves cups, bags, bedspreads and all sorts of products such cans of alcoholic beverages, biscuits and boxes of a well known US brand of ‘fajita kits’ sugar skulls printed on their packaging and the phrase ‘Day of the Dead Edition’. Clear examples of blatant cultural appropriation.
Although I am thrilled to see that Mexico is recognised abroad for its rich identity and culture, I question the fact that many companies take it over and exploit it solely for commercial purposes. On the other hand Tex-Mex restaurants disguised as authentic Mexican food ones appear everywhere; nowadays anyone who travels to the United States and eats a burrito claims to know all about Mexican food with its culture or those returning from a trip to Cancun establish their own restaurant or food stall offering the usual US version of Mexican food. When one sees that nachos are a main course at £ 8 an order you don’t know whether to laugh or cry!
I have deviated from the central theme as I usually do.
I was saying that the presence of Mexico abroad is incredible. To prove it, just do a quick search online and you’ll quickly discover dozens of Day of the Dead celebrations across the UK, many organised by local councils, community groups and cultural centres in their attempt to 1) acknowledge that remembering our deceased is important and 2) to try to see death as something natural that should not fill us with sadness.
One of such celebrations is organised by the shops that populate Columbia Road in Shoreditch, London, which we happened to stumble across before returning to Manchester. We concentrated on the Mexican craft shop ‘Milagros’, as we know the owner and the night before we had co-shared the space with him at the event.
In the backyard of his shop, a Mexican street food stand was set up by a group of Mexicans living in the United Kingdom who offer catering services and organise pop-ups and supper clubs in London, an excellent alternative to mainstream food chains where ordinary people from different countries cook authentic dishes for a group of friends or strangers invited to their homes or a venue of their choice in exchange for a fee. The tlacoyos were delicious, so was the champurrado (hot chocolate made with maize flour) and the bread of the dead; to finish off, we had a mezcal that without doubt warmed us up. It sounds ridiculous but being so far from home these little delicacies are the taste of glory!
Milagros is an incredible shop. Tom Bloom, the owner, a warm Englishman who by mere chance ended up living in Mexico for several months after a family visit to the United States many moons ago, fell in love with culture, its people, its colours and art to such degree that he packed up his academic career to found Milagros on his return to England. Tom sources his crafts and ceramics directly from artisans and artists. He has been searching for, meeting and establishing relationships with Mexican talents for countless years. Everything he sells is of high quality and made by Mexican hands. I mention this because it is not easy to find original arts and crafts from my country in this part of the world.
We left his shop and ran into a bride and groom dressed up as Mexican skeletons; people took selfies on their way to all the other shops. The bunting made of hammered tissue paper (papel picado) coloured the street as the sun lit the afternoon. For a moment I remembered Oaxaca or any other Mexican town on one of its many national celebration days but lacked the noise, the music, the smell of garnachas (street food), the stray dogs and the familiarity.
It was time to take the train back home. We waived goodbye to London content and with the pleasant feeling of having been in Mexico at least for a few hours; it was a surreal experience, a bit like Mexico is.
We got in after a long but beautiful day, we sat down to contemplate our ofrenda while we recapped on the experience, drank hot chocolate and savoured the last bits of bread of the dead we had left in the cupboard.
All the photos are property of ©Roxana Allison, 2018
Responsibility for the information and views set out in this publication lies entirely with the authors. And do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Miradas Múltiples.
Comparte: Mexico Abroad