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Only against death does man cry out in vain.” (Malcolm Lowry in ‘Under the Volcano’)

I have been thinking a lot about life and death over the past weeks and about how we ritualise these concepts through celebration, mourning, remembrance, legacy. From celebrating 100 years since the birth of Dylan Thomas on 27th October to what has become several days over the end of October/beginning of November encompassing All Hallows Eve, Samhain, Nos Galan Gaeaf, Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Day of the Dead, it has been an extraordinary week already. The rituals continue over the next few weeks with Remembrance Day and the continuing 2014 commemoration of 100 years since the beginning of the 1st World War.

I have decided to do a series of blog posts each focusing on a different aspect of my personal commemorations of these Days of the Dead.

“Our cult of death is also a cult of life” (Octavio Paz, Mexican Nobel Prizewinner for Literature)

To the people of New York, Paris or London, ‘death’ is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips. The Mexican, however, frequents it, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favourite toys and most steadfast love.”

(from The Labyrinth of Solitude)

The ‘official’ Mexican/UK contribution in 2014 was a Day of the Dead Festival centred on the Bargehouse, part of the Oxo Tower wharf in London.


Juan Jose Rivas

The exhibition included, with support from the Arts Council, recent works from contemporary artists including The Chapman Brothers, Graciela Iturbide, Jordan Baseman, James Ostrer, Juan Jose Rivas, Johnnie Shand Kydd & Rankin. Arte Mexico presented a contemporary Mexican Art exhibition, “highlighting traditions as a prolific element in the development of art in Mexico.” Curated by Javier Calderon it included works by Luis Felipe Ortega, Tania Candiani, Mario de Vega, Hector Falcon, Guillermo R. Gudiño, Mariana Magdaleno and Isaac Olvera.

Juan Jose Rivas’s interactive sound installation was definitely the most atmospheric, particularly suited to the venue, with giant skulls acting as audio helmets to listen to sound effects inspired by classic horror stories such as Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’.


A newly commissioned traditional Mexican Day of the Dead Altar by Mexican master folk artist Rodolfo Villena Hernandez, was also on display. This Mexican Day of the Dead Altar was dedicated to the Unknown Soldier of World War One and created as part of that war’s 100-year anniversary. The Altar featured Mexican Cartoneria (paper-mache) techniques but also prized objects including daily icons used to represent the life of those who served in WWI. Archive material from the Great War was also included on the Altar, provided by the Imperial War Museum, London. A slightly incongruous combination but a magnificent result.

A literary event organised by the British Council provided an opportunity for discussion on how death is manifested in Mexican culture, and whether Mexican attitudes are something to be encouraged in other cultures and societies.


Elizabeth Bacquedano


Chloe Aridjis

Elizabeth Bacquedano, author and academic, gave a historical perspective, drawing on pagan origins and giving Aztec as well as later Catholic examples, while author Chloe Aridjis focused on her inheritance as a Mexican brought up mainly in Europe, and more contemporary manifestations. She read from her haunting novel ‘Book of Clouds‘, set in Berlin. There was also discussion on the more recent and controversial cult of the dead, Santa Muerte.

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Also a part of the festival was a Shrine to Dissent organised by The Drawing Exchange, with associated drawing expeditions to dissenters’ burial sites, which I took part in, and which I will write about next, to be followed by my own family Day of the Dead celebration!