Public Remembering At The Altar Of Community

The Sixth Annual Community Altar Installation gives everyone a chance to participate, and to catch of glimpse of the lives of those who have passed on.

Day of the Dead altars

Photo: Mia Partlow/WFIU

Looking at the altars as a whole can be overwhelming, but peer a little closer and you'll find photos, notebooks, tiny children's toys, and more.

In Mexico, Day of the Dead is traditionally a family event held to remember loved ones who have passed on. But more frequently in the United States, Day of the Dead celebrations are being held away from family members in art galleries, schools, and community centers.

This year, Bloomington artists Jaime Sweany and Michael Redman are hosting the Sixth Annual Community Altar Installation. For the first time the altars are displayed at Sublime Design, now that Sweany’s Wandering Turtle storefront has closed (though the online gallery remains open).

An Installation Of Object And Memory

Sweany and Redman are in a small room with wood floors in Sublime Design, looking over the altars they designed and installed. The tables and shelves are decorated with notes and mementos left at last year’s altars.

The items are all carefully placed so there is room for this year’s offerings. The process of unpacking the boxes of mementos and arranging them on the altars can be an emotional one.

“Sometimes I cry when I’m putting things away and discovering things,” Sweany says. “It’s all meaningful.”

Tucked among the skulls and colorful tablecloths are seashells, cigars, a box of crayons, some plastic fish, and tiny folded notes, which the artists don’t open.

The items left are meaningful to someone, giving others a tiny glimpse into the lives of those who have passed on. Anyone can leave a memento or note. Just make sure it’s not a family heirloom; the artists keep everything for the next year’s display.

Creating A Very Personal, And Public, Celebration

For Michael Redman, it’s difficult to choose just one object to talk about.  “One of the things that I remember from the first year, or maybe it was the second, was that someone posted a photo of a friend of theirs that had died,” Redman says. “I took pictures of the altar and posted it on Facebook, and her brother, who lives–I don’t know where he lives–somewhere not in Bloomington, not in Indiana. But he saw that photo and was just blown away that it was there.”

They’re meant for all to see, but these altars are intensely personal. Mari Dagaz has been leaving mementos at the altars since Sweany and Redman began the altar installations. While she talks, Dagaz looks at the small needle and thread she left years ago, now a prominent part of the display. Sharing her memories with others has helped Dagaz process the loss of loved ones.

I placed things on the altar the first year for people that I love who have passed on to another realm of existence. And I’d already processed that, through time. But around the third or fourth altar my father passed away, shortly before the altar was installed, so that was actually part of my processing.

Community Tradition

The Day of the Dead holiday has a mixture of indigenous and Catholic roots. It was originally celebrated in the summer, but Catholic missionaries tied the holiday to All Saints Day, to ease the conversion of indigenous Mexicans to Christianity. It is now celebrated in Mexico from October 31 through November 2.

And in the United States, the holiday is becoming increasingly popular. Sweany first had the idea for the Community Altar Installation at a museum in Indianapolis.

She says, “We wanted it to be our own interpretation. We embrace and love that tradition, the Mexican tradition, but we were pretty clear we aren’t from Mexico, and it would make more sense for us to do something that was uniquely Bloomington.”

Community Centers such as La Casa, the Indiana University Latino Cultural Center, have altars commemorating people or events that have touched their community in the past year. The growth of the holiday doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of meaning, however.

Lillian Casillas, director of La Casa, says that while modern expressions of the holiday stray from its traditions, altars retain their emotional meaning when they are very personal.  “When it comes down to it, that is what an altar is: It’s personal to the person who has passed and to the people that are remembering,” she says.

Everyone’s An Artist

Although the objects on the altars are very personal, the craftsmanship of the  altars reveals that they are also works of art which anyone can participate in creating.

“It says something about where we live,” Redman says. “You walk in here and there’s a feeling of this being part of the people who live here. Not one person, and certainly not me and not Jaime. It’s the people who come here and leave things who are the artists.”

Anyone, regardless of cultural tradition or religion, can become a part of this public art project by leaving a memento or note honoring a loved one.

The Sixth Annual Community Altar Installation will have its closing ceremony, rather than a traditional opening, on November 4 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Sublime Design on Kirkwood Avenue. Throughout the month, visitors can leave objects at the altars during Sublime Design’s business hours.

Mia Partlow

Mia moved to Bloomington from Louisville, Kentucky in 2002. After completing her BA at Indiana University, she lived briefly in New Orleans, and then moved to NYC to get a master's in American Studies. Now settled in Bloomington, Mia loves working with area organizations in her role as a Corporate Development associate for WFIU and WTIU. She spends most of her free time sewing and trying to tire out her energetic dog.

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