BY TRACY ZOLLINGER TURNER
Most art is static and unchanging—something that is created and complete. Bloomington’s Day of the Dead Community Altar is none of those things. Inspired by the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, the altar is a collaborative space where visitors are encouraged to leave a photograph, written memory, or object that commemorates someone who has died.
The first Bloomington altar appeared in 2006 at the Wandering Turtle Art Gallery, owned by Jaime Sweany (now Bloom’s associate publisher).
“I saw the altar as a way to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer with us,” Sweany says. “A way to honor their memories.”
As Sweany and her collaborator, Michael Redman, saw the positive public response, they decided to preserve the altar and let it grow. They carefully stored each year’s offerings—things like eyeglasses, books, toys, and letters—then brought them back out each fall. As the memorial gained a following, people returned annually to revisit their mementos and add new ones.
When Sweany closed her gallery in 2011, she put five years’ worth of offerings into storage and worked to find a new location for the altar. In 2012, after one year at the now-closed Sublime Design Gallery, the altar reappeared at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Redman and the Wandering Turtle’s former manager, Rachel DiGregorio, took over its care and installation. At Mathers, the altar is treated as a homegrown cultural tradition.
“Because this altar is a participatory space for the community, it isn’t identical to those you might find in Mexico or Mexican-American neighborhoods in the U.S.,” says Sarah Hatcher, head of programs and education at Mathers. “But it opens the door to discuss the Day of the Dead and introduces people to the traditions that surround it.”
The Día de los Muertos Community Altar will be available at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures from October 3 to November 1.
DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS
See how the Day of the Dead Community Altar has grown over the past 11 years in this exclusive slide show: