Twenty-nine people from Canada, India, CT, GA, MA, ME, NC, NJ, NY, and PA participated in this evening’s slow-looking at La Ofrenda (1914) a painting by Mexican modernist Saturnino Herrán. The abundance of gold-orange flowers first called our attention: “The artist’s palette challenges nature.” Were the flowers a family’s harvest, which they were transporting to market on a small flat-bottomed boat? What is in the background? There appears to be a parade of boats (trajineras) filled with people. Where are all these people going? Paying close attention to the structure of the boat provided clues to handwork in a bygone era: “These are the people who do the work…they are ordinary people earning their living.” As always, there are as many perspectives in our room as there are people. We all bring our own lenses to this painting: are we in Thailand?
As we moved to look at the characters, we wondered about the relationship between these figures. To many, they do not appear to look at each other or be in conversation: “They are in their own minds.” and “There are two levels at the same time – collective narrative and individual narrative.”
We began to look closely at the faces of the six people on the boat in the foreground. The young girl in the lower right-hand corner looks directly at the viewer. The others are in profile and, indeed, do not seem to look at each other. There are people of each gender and every age. Everyone carries something (a baby, flowers, a paddle) except the oldest man, dressed in black, who leans against a wooden structure in the center of the boat. Are those wings on his right shoulder? Is he confessing, grieving, praying?
Our attention turned to the white-robed man in the center. Is he the father of the young girl?
He has a soft, compassionate look. A religious figure? Is he the Good Shepherd? He has a staff in his right hand and is holding a bunch of flowers (the cempasúchitl/marigolds) on his left shoulder where, in icons, there is usually a lost lamb. Or is he Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx? Is this a group portrait of the living or the dead? In which direction are they traveling?
We then noticed that the paddle lies across one of the men’s shoulder. No one is rowing. These are human beings, of different genders and stages of development, who are drifting on the river of life to their final destination. They honor and remember; they are honored and remembered.
Intertextually, the 2017 animated film “Coco” came to mind, with its music and story depicting the belief that, as long as someone remembers them, the dead are able to cross from the other side and visit the living on All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Before we moved to reflective writing, we looked at a self-portrait of the artist as well as a photograph of a 2020 Day of the Dead altar in Mexico, which is decorated with these brilliant, gold-orange flowers, photographs of relatives who have died, their favorite food and drink.
Writing to the prompt: “Write about honoring the ancestors” brought writing which continued our conversation about connections between the living and the dead.
The first piece, which was read aloud, suggested that we honor the dead with our lives. There was mention of rituals such as lighting candles, before three questions were addressed to the dead: “Do you see me? Are you proud? What would you do?”
We often remind each other how each viewer brings to an image “the beholder’s share”—the times and places in which we find ourselves, our lived experiences, exposure to art, literature, music, our desires, beliefs, rituals and traditions. Here on the eve of the national election in the United States, the passion that many people have for the right to vote–as a way for our voices to be heard–made its way into the final reading. With a strong rhythm building, in the third piece, a stirring march messaged: honoring the ancestors is a way to honor the future. The repetition of “I vote because I can” elicited deeply felt responses from other participants. One commented on the sound, “the rhythm like the lub dub of a strong heart.” Some remembered the stories their parents told of why their families immigrated to the United States. Still others, in this international group that has been gathering on Zoom these past seven months: “We are watching,” providing the important function of witnessing that which many of us are experiencing with great anxiety and uncertainty.
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Please join us for our next session Wednesday, November 4th at 12pm EST, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.