¡Feliz Día de los Muertos!
Setting aside sacred time to honour ancestors long passed on was such a meaningful tradition to the Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayans and other ancient peoples before them, that not even all the king’s conquistadors and all the king’s missionaries could extinguish the flamboyant practice. The Day of the Dead, as we anglophones know it today, was more or less just rescheduled to fit in with Christian mortality-minded observances like All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day, and has rightly thrived ever since in its reverence and riots of colour.
A national holiday in Mexico, and feted far and wide around the globe, Day of the Dead festivities tend to pick up on October 31st and wind down after nightfall on November 2nd. Depressing to some while cathartic to others, the three-day death bender is so potent in its optimistically macabre beauty that even people who fathom nada about the rich minutiae of Latin American cultures have come to know many of the symbols and gestures associated with the celebration. Altars laden with incense and marigolds, candle-lit parades to the cemetery, painted cardboard and crepe paper skeletons sporting sombreros and evening wear, semiotically-charged loaves of pan de muerto, and possibly most recognisably, sugary confections in the form of dazzlingly-decorated human skulls, called calaveras.
A very emotive part of self-described “dolly artist, tiny tailor and cardboard architect” Kat Caro‘s portfolio feeds into the visual feast that sustains Día de los Muertos; the dolls in her repertoire of commissioned calaveras are small in stature but fully all encompass the devotion and mystery of the metaphysically-tuned in fiesta, and boast a quiet sort of romantic, gothic elegance all their own. Caro began painting her calaveras after coming across the work of fellow artist Sylvia Ji, well known for her compositions of glamorous women with sugar skull features. With the spookiest time of year fast approaching, Caro turned her hand to painting an extra doll face plate from her supplies in the iconic style, hoping to increase its worth.
What followed was not merely the sale of one spare part, but a stream of requests from patrons eager to care for a custom, fully-outfitted calavera of their own. The artist has since ceased openly accepting commissions for calaveras, and only occasionally opens up a spot in her artistic agenda to craft one for a lucky collector. The demand for the calaveras simply became too high and Caro was not at all fond of the idea of letting the standard of her work slip, nor allowing it to seem as if her tremendous esteem for the solemn yet vivacious heritage and imagery of Día de los Muertos had been spirited away by bursts of success.
Caro’s calaveras, made from much elaborated ball joint, Blythe, Pullips and Monster High dolls are bewitching. There’s something about their sensuous employment of frisky colour palettes and stoic poses that is both humorous, pious and hard to look away from. And most coyly, the series reflects a clever combination of plasticky consumerism americano with engrossing, longstanding indigenous rituals. It’s a combination in which un-marketable aspects like history and love most gracefully win out, and are rendered homage to in a form that is accessible to, and might encourage self-education on the holiay in, those whose only available mental reference to Mexican civilisation might be the chimichanga.