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Nothing Grave About Skeleton Art

October 07, 1990|JENNIFER MERIN

MEXICO CITY — Just as every village in Mexico has its own way of celebrating the Day of the Dead, every craft-producing region has its own art which appears in shops and street corner stalls in the fall around festival time.

Skeletons and skulls shaped out of papier-mache, ceramic, wood, crystallized sugar and tin are among the pieces that have developed to commemorate the event. Also created in connection with the festival are ceramic devil figures and candelabras in styles ranging from the cartoon-like to the surrealistic, from minimalist to rococo.

Day of the Dead crafts have become so popular, in fact, that items can now be found in galleries throughout the year.

Collectors have the choice of buying the pieces in Mexico City stores or venturing out to small towns to find the crafts where they are made. Although this involves considerable travel, the experience of meeting artisans and watching them at work is well worth the effort. But be advised that the finest artists--those whose work shows unusual creativity and exceptional quality--are often reluctant to let observers into their workshops.

Before buying Day of the Dead crafts, it may be helpful to study a quality collection. One such collection may be seen at the home of the late muralist Diego Rivera at Calle Londres 127 in Mexico City. Additional art is on display at the Diego Rivera Museum at Calles del Museo 150 in San Pablo Tepetlapan, a suburb south of Mexico City.

The collection features extraordinary papier-mache skeletons made in varying sizes, shapes and costumes, in all sorts of activities.

Those with individually constructed bones strung together look like anatomical models. Other pieces stand up to two feet tall and are decked out as brides or grooms, sun bathers, cameramen, sportsmen and tourists. Skeletons of costumed mariachis are arranged in bands with instruments.

Similar items are sold in Mexico City's government sponsored Fonart shops at Avenida Juarez 89, Londres 36, Avenida de la Paz 37 and Patriotismo 691. Prices start at about $5 and can rise to several hundred dollars but are usually 50% less in Mexico than in the United States.

Most Day of the Dead crafts are made anonymously, but Don Pedro Linares, one of the most famous artists, has become something of a star. His papier-mache skeletons and skulls have been exhibited in Paris and Chicago and sell for $100 to $2,000 per sculpture.

Linares' pieces range from superb larger-than-life skeletons dressed like elegant lords and ladies, to life-size skulls painted hot pink or electric blue and decorated with colorful floral patterns. The latter are considered prizes, although to the uninitiated they resemble similar models made near Guadalajara that sell for a fraction of Linares' price.

Another well-respected Mexico City papier-mache sculptor, named Miranda, is heir to a long family tradition of making Day of the Dead art. The work of his grandmother and his father was collected by Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.

In Miranda's distinctive style, roughly formed skeletons have surrealistic shapes, either too squat and fat or too long and lean. They sell for about $75 to $500 and can be found, along with a small number of Linares pieces, in Fonart shops or craft galleries. Linares and Miranda pieces are usually kept locked up, so ask for special assistance if you want to see them.

Unusual and sometimes scandalous ceramic Day of the Dead figurines and sculptures are made by Tarascan Indians in Ocumicho, in the state of Michoacan.

The art portrays ghoulish skeletons and lascivious devils. Surrealistic in look, the art is popular with buyers who often try to assemble theme collections, such as devils in airplanes or riding motorcycles, at weddings and in scenes that parody religious events. The sculptures, usually adorned with snakes and ornate arrangements of flowers and cacti, sell for about $40 to $250.

Excellent sources include the Fonart stores in Mexico City, as well as La Casa de las Artesanias de Michoacan at Campos Elisios and Temistocles in Mexico City and Bazar Unicornio at San Francisco 1. The art also is found in craft shops in San Miguel de Allende in the State of Guanajuato.

Although sugar skulls are made in almost every town at this time of year, Guanajuato makes the best and biggest variety of candy associated with the Day of the Dead. In the town's mercado, special stalls display cream-colored sombrero-clad candy skeletons smoking cigarettes and holding miniature bottles of tequila. They range from about 50 cents to $20, come in all sizes and are available throughout the year.

The skeletons are called mommias, in reference to the collection of mummified bodies that were naturally preserved in Guanajuato's cemeteries and are among the town's biggest tourist attractions.

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