What started as an artistic act of love a decade and a half ago has grown into a celebration of life on the day of the dead. Almost 15 years ago, Birmingham lost an icon, an artist, a father, and one of the most influential people in the struggle for civil rights. A staff photographer for The Birmingham News, James “Spider” Martin took iconic photographs during the Selma marches and throughout the ‘60s that galvanized our nation and helped fuel the civil rights movement in its earliest days. In November of 2003, following his sudden passing that April, his daughter, artist Tracy Martin, chose to honor him by creating an installation in the style of a Mexican altar called an ofrenda at Bare Hands Gallery. Inspired by the altar, a small group of artists chose to continue the tradition the following November. Like the seed of a marigold blown into a crack in the pavement, the practice took hold. This year, its fifteenth (and a very important year in Mexican tradition), the event will attract several thousand people.
In Mexico, people create ofrendas, Spanish for “offerings,” to honor the memory of their family members who have passed. Often these memorials are created on November 2nd, Diá de los Muertos, (day of the dead) when it is believed that the veil between the earthly world and the afterlife is thinnest. On that day, the celebrants believe, the souls of the departed return to visit their loved ones and participate in a celebration. The ofrendas are usually set up on tablecloth-covered tables, and traditionally feature photos of the departed; some of their favorite things like foods, books, beverages, and the like in order to invite them back; marigolds (cempazuchitl), an Aztec flower of the dead; prayer candles; water and salt (to revive the soul after its long journey back from the hereafter to visit the living); skeletons that represent the departed participating in everyday activities; brightly colored sugar skulls known as calaveras; and food such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead). It’s not a mourning event, but a festive celebration of the continuum of life.
Here in Birmingham, the celebration, which, this year will for the first time be held at Pepper Place, began small. The gathering soon outgrew the gallery space and spilled into the alley behind. Each year, a few more gathered. Local chefs Guillermo Castro and Franklin Biggs provided food, poets read their work and musicians played. It wasn’t long before other altars appeared. In 2011, Chef Castro passed away and the celebration grew again, in some ways gaining another patron soul to celebrate beside Spider. The tradition has grown organically, year upon year. Now, a roll call for the dead is performed, the name of each celebrated deceased relative is called and the attendees answer, “present.” There is food, and music, and face painting, reverence and revelry. It is a celebration of lives well-lived, of the people we love, and the lives that we the living lead. And it’s not to be missed. Learn more about how to participate at barehandsinc.org.