Manic grinning skulls, a mournful skeleton in a lovely long dress, kitschy neon mementoes, faded family photos, a wreath of human hair – it has all the makings of a macabre tableau.
But look closer at the ghoulish contents of the Surrey Museum’s latest exhibit, Days of the Dead, and you’ll see works of astonishing range of expression, creativity and unmistakable depth of feeling.
Last spring, Surrey high school students were invited to submit artwork for the exhibit, inspired by the Latin American celebration Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos. The 3,000-year-old tradition honours loved ones who have passed on, acknowledging their impact on the present in friendly and intimate terms.
Art teachers at seven Surrey schools were pivotal in communicating the museum’s cultural vision into an artistic one embraced by the nearly 230 students who participated in the project.
Students also turned to their parents and relatives, many delving into family history and traditions for the first time, uncovering stories and cultural observances they’d never known about before.
The pieces in Days of the Dead range from large sculptures and drawings, paintings and mixed media installations – each offering insight into the heritage, identity and beliefs of the students who created them.
A Stitch in Time, a needlework on canvass piece by Justina Tymiak of Kwantlen Park Secondary, honours her Polish and Ukrainian immigrant ancestors. The art of needlecraft, she says, is a skill that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Doing the project helped her appreciate the importance of carrying on the tradition.
“Each stitch I sewed into the canvass made me feel in touch with their spirits,” she writes.
More than a few of the 136 mini shadow boxes in a mosaic created by Kwantlen Park Secondary students reflect stories that are familiar from news headlines, including the recent (and unrelated) murders of two Surrey young people, a fatal accident at a Fraser Valley mushroom production facility, and a plane crash that claimed the relative of one of the artists.
Pets and pop stars like the late Michael Jackson are also given their due, the latter in the form of a glittery-gloved hand reaching out in three dimensions.
Four pieces were completed by Spirit of Youth students, under the artistic direction of Marc Pelech, an instructor from Sullivan Heights Secondary.
The largest is Theatre of the Soul, an arresting mixed media piece that measures three metres wide by four metres tall, and is built out of beads, cardboard, clay, electric lighting, lucite and metal.
The figures represent life, death, and the state between the two, as well as other cultural symbols. It was created by artists Michele Miguel, artists Zoey Ahn, Yeram (Grace) Kim, Jocelyn Ko, Kyuri Lee, Michelle Liu and Angela Ryu. It cost $25,000 to produce (through the Spirit of Youth program) and will be permanently installed in the Surrey School District after the exhibition.
Students and their parents were invited to an opening night gathering at the museum earlier this month to view the exhibit.
On Saturday, Nov. 26, the Surrey Museum hosts a Mexican Cultural Fiesta, providing an opportunity for the public to learn more about the Day of the Dead and the Latin American community. The event includes traditional dances by Mexico Vivo, live mariachi music and Latin crafts. From 1-3 p.m.
Days of the Dead is on display Nov. 15 to Dec. 23, and is presented in partnership with School District 36.
Admission to the museum is sponsored by the Friends of the Museum Society. It’s open Tuesdays to Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Visit www.surrey.ca/heritage for more info or call 604-592-6956.