Another tradition modified by COVID-19, this year’s “Day of the Dead” exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art is being presented virtually, via periodic online tours.

background pattern: Ester Hernández artwork "Tejido de los desaparecidos (Weaving of the Disappeared)" is part of the National Museum of Mexican Art permanent collection, and included in the Chicago museum's 2020 virtual exhibition "Sólo un Poco Aquí: Day of the Dead."

© Michael Tropea photo/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Ester Hernández artwork “Tejido de los desaparecidos (Weaving of the Disappeared)” is part of the National Museum of Mexican Art permanent collection, and included in the Chicago museum’s 2020 virtual exhibition “Sólo un Poco Aquí: Day of the Dead.”

So instead of the elaborate commemorative ofrendas, or home altars, from traditional Mexican craftspersons that are typically created for the annual show, the museum is going mostly local, either by looking into its own vaults or commissioning new work from the area.

“This is our 34th year of ‘Day of the Dead,’ and I must say it’s probably the biggest break with the traditional format that we’ve had,” said chief curator Cesáreo Moreno. “And so what it basically is, is traditional works from the permanent collection and then a lot of contemporary pieces by local Chicagoland artists. It’s probably the most contemporary show for Day of the Dead that we’ve done.”

During the kickoff party for the exhibit, which opened Sept. 18, Moreno began by saying “kind of a bummer,” but he was referring more to the contrast between talking to a camera in the party space known as YouTube and the gathering that is usually an in-person blowout.

But with the free Pilsen museum having tighter galleries than the Art Institute or MCA downtown and with the coronavirus still raging through the U.S. population — and proving especially menacing to Latino and Black communities — the museum is doing the cautious thing and remaining closed for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, the “Day of the Dead” exhibit does mark the Mexican art museum’s first show mounted since the pandemic closed most of public life in Chicago in mid-March. And, yes, the museum’s celebrated gift shop remains closed in person, but it can be visited online.

The title of this year’s Day of the Dead show, dedicated to those who’ve suffered in the coronavirus pandemic, is fitting: “Sólo un poco aquí,” or “Just a little here,” after a poem by the 15th century “poet-king” Nezahualcóyotl that itself addresses the human predicament.

“Even if it is made of jade it breaks,” he wrote. “Even if it is made of gold it breaks, Even if it is plumage of quetzal it tears. Not forever on earth: Just a little here.”

The museum’s decision on whether to reopen was touch-and-go, and it left the “Day of the Dead” team, led by exhibition curator Dolores Mercado, working with assistant Marilyn Lara Corral, making some choices they might not have made had they known earlier that people would still not be allowed to visit in person on opening day.

“Normally ‘Day of the Dead’ is a very busy, dynamic exhibition with lots of things to see,” Moreno said.

Because of the feeling that easy traffic flow and social distancing would be a priority should they be able to bring visitors in, “We designed it to be a little bit more like a traditional contemporary exhibit, where there’s a good amount of space in between all the works,” he said. “Then it really wasn’t until a few weeks ago that, through the board of directors, we found out the museum would remain closed through the end of 2020. And so reopening the museum is really contingent on the vaccine and seeing how things go.”

How things will go for people wanting to see this year’s exhibition is as follows: You register for a virtual tour on the website, Separate tours are conducted in Spanish and English, and they take place Saturdays and Sundays through the show’s closing on Dec. 13. Group tours, for a fee, are also available.

On view — and discussed by the tour guides — will be some striking works of art, many of them working with the skulls and skeletal figures that are markers of Día de Muertos art, and of the start-of-November Mexican holiday commemorating the deceased and affirming life for those still here.

One new piece that stands out for Moreno, he said, is a contemporary installation with a political bent by Salvador Jiménez-Flores: “He’s a professor at the School of the Art Institute. The guy is just a master of ceramics. He has taken the concept of ‘trees of life’ — and we have traditional trees of life in the very beginning of the exhibition — and you can recognize it. When you look at his work, it’s like, ‘Oh it’s a tree of life.’

“But what he’s done is made it about the environment, specifically in Little Village and the air pollution over there. It’s a protest piece in favor of the residents of Little Village who are fighting the polluting corporations.”

The masks on some of his figures give “a familiar COVID feeling, but, of course, he’s talking about the environment.”

Another striking new piece, he said, is by Chicago artist Sam Kirk: “She did a piece that, as usual, talks about the LGBTQ community within the Latino community. She did one that has to do with love and stories behind closed doors — so kind of like the idea of secrets.”

And it ties deftly into the larger themes of the exhibition. “The Day of the Dead has so many romantic ideas attached to it, of people coming home, of missing our loved ones,” said Moreno. “And of course, with that comes ideas of secrecy, right? When someone passes away, they take with them all their secrets. And I think Sam has really touched on this in a very unique way, where she talks about love, sort of a hidden love, at the end of time.”

The museum did get some good news during the pandemic. A big Frida Kahlo photography show that was supposed to debut in the spring — the artworks were literally sitting in crates in the museum as the closure began and then, when it became clear the closure would not soon end, were shipped back to Mexico unopened — will be able to come back and go on view here in 2022.

Taking the philosophical view, the museum, Moreno noted, has been forced to think on its feet, to be nimble and learn new skills, such as the live video presentation that will be mixed in with some recorded pieces during the virtual tours.

“I’m hoping it’s an exercise that we’ll come out of a little stronger, a little better, maybe understanding a few things about ourselves and the work we do a little bit a little better,” he said. “But I hope it’s an exercise that, you know, has an end, and we can kind of go back and we can all reminisce about that crazy year.”

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