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Dia de los Muertos

I returned to one of my favorite events here in LA, the Day of the Dead festival held in the impressive surroundings of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. This year I was more focused on photography (if you excuse the pun), shooting the spectacle on behalf of the organisers, rather than getting dressed up myself, which was great fun last year.

As the event was held early this year , (I suspect to avoid coinciding with Halloween parties) it was incredibly busy, a sensory experience – so many people with their own twist on the calaca costume, fun sparkly confections to buy, tasty morsels to sample, parades, and entertainers on a flamboyantly dressed stage. As the only cemetery in the US to hold a Day of the Dead festival, art exhibits inside the cathedral, rituals and dance performances on the lake,and altars nestled amongst the tombs and gravestones celebrate the unique location with both reverence and the spirit of fun. The community altars ranged from really moving dedications to ancestors or the military to cleverly humorous subjects including the dear departed dinosaurs, and demoted planet Pluto…
A selection of images are up over on my photography site

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Los Angeles makeup

Los Angeles Day of the Dead

Viva el Dia de los Muertos! In LA, the Mexican Day of the Dead festival is celebrated with a large cultural event each year in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The tombs and graves of the rich and famous are interspersed with altars draped with colour-drenched floral garlands, evocative framed portraits and creative flourishes with little battery operated candles and fairy lights twinkling into the night.
I was first introduced to the tradition when I saw an exhibit in London’s Museum of Mankind, displaying altars with ofrendas (offerings) and explaining the significance of elements as as memento mori – but to be part of the event really brought the tradition to life, if you excuse the pun. The festival which originated in Mexico has such a unique aesthetic and exciting atmosphere – one of the worldwide traditions recognising the cycle of life, honouring and celebrating ancestors and the lives of those who have passed away, with music, dancing and specially created altars. Replete with skull and skeleton motifs the spirit is anything but morbid, rather, flamboyant – with a sense of humour and reverence at the same time. Some common elements of the altar construction are explained by this excerpt from the Hollywood Forever website:

* Earth is represented by the crop: The soul is fed by the various earthly aromas. Placing fruit or favorite family dishes on the altar provides nourishment for the beloved souls.
* Wind is represented by a moving object: Paper- Mache is commonly utilized to represent the echoes of the wind.
* Water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long awaited journey to the altar. Water is also used for the means of purification.
* Fire is represented by a wax candle: Each lit candle represents a loving soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul.
* Copal – Incense burned to commemorate Pre-Columbian history.
* The Cempasuchitl-Marigold known as “The flower of the dead” blossoms in the valleys of Mexico during the months of October and November with a bright yellow color and is central to altar decorating. This flower aids the spirits to wander back.
* Pictures are widely used in honor of the individual you are paying homage to.
* The Skull – The common symbol of the holiday is the skull which is celebrated and represented by decorative masks called calacas. In addition sugar skulls are also tastefully created and inscribed with the names of both the honored and living recipients on the forehead as a means to remind us of our own mortality.

In Hollywood Forever, community altars are constructed and awarded prizes, aside from family altars, this year some displays were constructed to honour famous figures such as Bela Lugosi or artists like Frida Kahlo. Everyone participating, and many visitors dress in Mexican, often vintage-inspired attire and paints their faces in intricate patterns with darkened skull-like eye sockets.

We got into the spirit of the occasion as I brought my family over to join in, With a pineapple cocktail in one hand, I painted our faces, and our costumes also served the Halloween party we were attending that night. I carried some dead flowers in a bouquet, and donned a veil to become the familiar Calaca Bride character, with glitter, face paint and a vivid coloured wig.

The event included a parade, dance and music performances on a decorated stage, and stalls selling traditional crafts such as sugar skulls, glittery ceramic skeleton figures and painted skulls, and variations on the theme from hair slides, to handbags and paintings. Delicious food stalls were dotted around, the scents mingling with the wafting incense.

On this night the belief is that the ‘veil’ is lifted between the realms of the living and the dead – it is easy to imagine the entombed stars of yesteryear revelling again, celebrating into the night under the palm trees, in view of the Hollywood sign.


Photos featuring me (in the orange wig!) were taken by Chris Cunningham