Next month, Brooklyn’s iconic Green-Wood Cemetery will unveil a new artist installation and community altar to mark Día de los Muertos.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a revered holiday celebrated in many Hispanic cultures throughout Mexico and Latin America and is deeply rooted in pre-Hispanic tradition and Roman Catholicism. The holiday honors deceased loved ones by inviting their spirits back to the living world for a visit, and with family gatherings, special food and celebrations, and offerings made on an altar, or ofrenda.
Each year, Green-Wood invites an artist to create a community altar for locals to make their own offerings and remember their lost friends and family.
Titled “Mictlán,” the installation was created by local artist Cinthya Santos-Briones. Santos-Briones, a former anthropologist and ethnohistorian, is a visual artist and cultural organizer with roots to the Nahua, an indigenous peoples with roots located across parts of Mexico and El Salvador.
A reference to the Aztec mythology of the underworld, Mictlán is one of four places a soul enters to spend eternity based on one’s cause of death.
“’Mictlán’ references the conception of death in Mesoamerican thought — life-death duality,” said Santos-Briones. “I created this work through extensive research, revisiting the iconography of death through pre-Hispanic and colonial texts. These images associated with death have crossed territorial and temporal borders, but at the same time, the Catholic Church has not recognized one of the most important saints of popular Catholicism in Mexico, Santa Muerte.”
When creating the community altar at the center of her installation, Santos-Briones was heavily influenced by her family’s Día de los Muertos celebrations in Tulancingo, Mexico as well as the wide array of rituals and customs she witnessed while working in the field as an anthropologist.
A centerpiece at the chapel’s front hangs dramatically with hundreds of brightly-colored skulls decorated with floral patterns made with fabric sourced from Tulancingo. The skulls are reminiscent of the neatly arranged ones found in public altars in Mayan and Aztec cultures called tzompantli.
“Through textile design, I honor the figure of Santa Muerte, one of the most revered patron saints in the transnational space for migrants, which has its origins in the cult of the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, lady of the underworld, of Mictlán. I’ve included additional images of death I found in my research and which I’ve reinterpreted in silkscreen on colored linen, inspired by the floral arrangements woven by my grandmothers. Keeping with the custom of placing flowers on Day of the Dead altars, I designed crocheted traditional marigold and lion’s claw flowers,” said Santos-Briones.
To memorialize the architecture, culture, and people wrongfully lost by the European’s colonization of Mexico and Latin America in the sixteenth century, a pyramid is featured in the installation. It is inspired by the pre-Columbian city of Huapalcalco inspired by the ceremonial center of Huapalcalco, a pre-Columbian city that was once inhabited by the Toltec.
“Mictlán” also serves as a reminder of the religious elements of Día de los Muertos with popular figures such as La Calavera Catrina, an illustration by famed lithographer and illustrator, Jose Guadalupe Posadas, and Santa Muerte, a popular figure reminiscent of the Virgin Mary, being represented in Santos-Briones’s artwork.
“I first came to know Cinthya in 2019 when her photographs were featured on Green-Wood’s fence as part of the BRIC Biennial. Since then I have been excited to see the expansion of her creative practice to include textile, embroidery, and sculpture, all on view in ‘Mictlán,’” said Vice President of Education and Public Programs Harry J. Weil. “This community altar underscores her advocacy for indigenous and diasporic communities in New York City, and the important role of engaging a multitude of voices and traditions in art making. Visitors, regardless of their background or religious traditions, will feel welcomed to collectively pay homage to their departed loved ones.”
“Mictlán” will be on public view in Green-Wood’s Historic Chapel from Oct. 14 until Nov. 19. A special viewing will take place on Nov. 1 from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. for a Day of the Dead Family Celebration.