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Visual Art

Days of the Dead: Shrines for the American Dream

My inspirations for this collage art series are ofrendas (offerings, shrines, and ephemeral art installations) that individuals, families, and communities create for Día de Muertos, a holiday devoted to remembering the beloved dead. Ofrendas combine indigenous and post-Columbian religious symbols in exuberantly aesthetic displays. They typically include special foods and beverages—such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead), calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls), tequila and other spirits or soft drinksas well as decorative papel picado (cut paper), votive candles, and flowers, especially cempasúchil (marigold) and flor de terciopelo (celosia or cockscomb), along with portraits and mementos of lost loved ones. In the spirit of the holiday, Days of the Dead memorializes the dear departed with symbols representing death in life and life in death. 

“Days of the Dead: Shrines for the American Dream” envisions the deflated American dream of equal opportunity and abundance, as well as the dimming allure of the USA as a destination for aspiring immigrants. “Shrines” feature variations on family, food, and flowers, integral elements of ofrendas for Día de Muertos, incorporating contemporary images of everyday life in Los Estados (Des-) Unidos, with Wonder Bread, McMuffins, and Dunkin’ Donuts (for example) as pan de muerto. In addition to Mexico’s customary marigold and cockscomb flowers, my ofrendas include the iconic American Beauty rose and substitute the star-spangled banner for Mexico’s colorful banners of papel picado. In several collages, human teeth or dental prosthetics appear as a synecdoche for grinning skulls and skeletons, merrymaking calaveras and calacas that celebrate life in traditional ofrendas for Día de MuertosThis series engages with critical topics such as nutrition and hunger, environmental degradation, health care and drug dependence, evictions and homelessness, immigration and border patrol, violence and incarceration.

–Harryette Mullen

Wonder white Harryette Mullen, 2022
Punch (Hi-C) Harryette Mullen, 2022
Crib cheet (freakin’ hot) Harryette Mullen, 2022
Pink ‘n’ blue Harryette Mullen, 2022
Red ‘n’ white Harryette Mullen, 2022
Chronic pain Harryette Mullen, 2022
Baloney sandwich Harryette Mullen, 2022
Hungry Harryette Mullen, 2022
Nursing grievance (essential work) Harryette Mullen, 2022
Skin (mask/ink) Harryette Mullen, 2022
Spent Harryette Mullen, 2022
Remember El Paso Harryette Mullen, 2022
Borderline (tortilla curtain) Harryette Mullen, 2022
Gold rush Harryette Mullen, 2022
Out of the frying pan Harryette Mullen, 2022

Harryette Mullen teaches courses in American poetry, African American literature, and creative writing at UCLA. Her books include "Recyclopedia" (Graywolf, 2006), winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award, and "Sleeping with the Dictionary" (University of California, 2002), a finalist for a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

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