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Día de los Muertos Community Altar Project honors loved ones who have passed


“Día de los Muertos is a remembrance of those people that you loved who passed away and they come back on that particular night to share that moment of love and family,” says artist Roberto Torres Mata. “It’s a very important theme about family and we decorate, we offer food, we drink and we honor this person. So there’s no sadness or grief. It’s more a celebration of the person’s life and what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve offered and what they’ve given to the next generation. It’s a way to honor that.”

Torres Mata is one of the organizers of the 2021 Día de los Muertos Community Altar Project that debuted on Thursday at the Overture Center of the Arts and will be on display until Sunday, Nov. 14. The display features handmade shadow box altars made in memory of loved ones that have been created by members of the Madison-area community and contributed to the 2021 Community Altar Project.

“We are working together to provide this opportunity to the community of Madison to get involved and participate in this event related to El Dia de Los Muertos,” says Torres Mata, a recent UW-Madison Master of Fine Arts (MFA) graduate with a specialization in printmaking. “And having people work on the altars and decorate them and incorporating this special moment of their loved ones and sharing it with everybody in Madison at Overture.

“It’s a unique opportunity working with [Overture Center Gallery Manager] Beth [Racette] to have these more than 80 boxes displayed at the entrance of Overture Center to showcase and memorialize the people who have passed away as the tradition in Mexico does – Dia de Los Muertos,” Torres Mata adds.

Roberto Torres Mata (Photo supplied)

The project is supported by Overture Center for the Arts, Garver Feed Mill, Dane Arts, Madison Latino Chamber of Commerce and Wisconsin Conference on Latinx Art and Culture. UW partners include Center for Design & Material Culture, Chicano and Latino Studies Program, Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program and FH King Student Farm.

Carolyn Kallenborn, professor at the School of Human Ecology, started the Community Altar Project in 2014, inviting the public to celebrate the Day of the Dead by turning wooden shadow boxes into altars to those they’ve lost.

Year after year, the Día de los Muertos Community Altar Project honors ancestors and all those who passed and draws on the Day of the Dead altar-making traditions in Mexico and remembrance traditions worldwide.

Torres Mata has been involved with the Community Altar Project since last year when he was a UW MFA student. In the Summer of 2018, Torres Mata completed a three-month internship granted by the School of Human Ecology where he traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, and met the Zapotec and Mixtec people.

“I was working with a business that works with Indigenous communities providing viewership of the works so people could purchase and support the community in order to make more of their work,” Torres Mata remembers. “I was the graphic design, web design and marketing person for that business during that internship. That opportunity really helped me understand more the culture of Oaxaca and how it relates to Day of the Dead, how it relates to Indigenous arts and community and also how it relates to printmaking.

A previous Día de los Muertos Community Altar Project was held at Edgewood College. (Photo supplied)

“There was a huge printmaking scene in Oaxaca and it really expanded my thinking and the process of doing things in an artistic way,” he adds. “It was such an incredible opportunity to research and study and interview people through that time period.”

Beyond the exhibit, a story sharing and gallery viewing will take place Monday, Nov. 8, 6 p.m., in the Rotunda Gallery and a Remembrance and Celebration reception will take place Friday, Nov. 12, 5-9 p.m. at Garver Feed Mill.

“This will be projected images of alter boxes onto the wall by the entrance at the Garver Feed Mill.  People are submitting Day of the Dead photos, videos, artwork on the face of the building,” Torres Mata says.

International partners for the Community Altar Project include El Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano. Additional thanks to members of the community of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca Mexico and San Antonino Castillo Velasco Oaxaca, Mexico.

“I will also be including this very large rosary in the exhibit – an almost 12-foot ceramic sculpture that will be suspended off the ceiling,” he says. “I’m really hoping that this is something the community enjoys.”