I first came across the work of Leah from Juan is Dead during the summer when I wrote a piece for the Metro UK about how super fashionable everything Mexican is right now in Britain. I absolutely love her work for its fun, cheeky playfulness mixed with real talented craftsmanship. Leah’s experience of Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, told below, beautifully captures the appeal that Day of the Dead holds for so many foreigners. Enjoy! And don’t forget to check out her fantastic work!
In the days leading up to Dia De Los Muertos I walk the paved streets of Oaxaca. Every home, shop, restaurant, bar or hotel has an altar; a table or corner colourfully decorated with skeleton figurines, the bright orange flowers ‘Cempasuchil’, plates of food and photos of loved ones. Shops are crammed full with tin skeletons and ceramic sugar candy skulls. Life size paper mache skeletons sit at a table in a café as though sharing a coffee and a gossip. Colourful cut out skeleton ‘Papel Picado’ line the streets.
I live in London and for a living I make skeleton mosaics. Most of the time I get a great response, but sometimes people shudder when they walk past my stall or ask why I’m obsessed with death? Funnily enough I never thought I was, I certainly hadn’t set out to be controversial. I just like skeletons. Here in Oaxaca, surrounded by all the colourful arts and crafts, I feel right at home. The niggling questions about my subject matter dispersed. For once, it all makes wonderful sense.
Dia De Los Muertos is 2 days where the dead come back to visit and party with the living. You never really have to say goodbye to your loved ones, as you will be with them every year at this special time. The altar becomes central to the home and represents the passageway between the dead and the living. I like the way the altar becomes a work of art in itself. When you have a drink or a meal, a portion is also placed on the table to share with the dead. If a loved one smoked you might place a box of cigarettes on there, or if they liked painting or dancing you might add a skeleton figurine enjoying this past time.
While in Oaxaca I was lucky enough to be invited to our Hotelier’s celebration at the local graveyard. Her husband had died a few years before and now every year she has a party there with all her family, friends and guests. When we arrive the graveyard is alight, each gravestone highly decorated with candles, bright orange and purple flowers, groups of families and friends huddle around, taking vigil, chatting and laughing into the night. Some even hire Mariachi bands. At first it did seem a little odd and I couldn’t quite shake off the ingrained idea of being quiet as a mark of respect in a graveyard. But actually it didn’t take long (perhaps only a shot of Mescal long) to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. It was a warm and magical night and we were welcomed into the celebrations.
For me it is the togetherness that really strikes a chord. A collective time when everyone can share their experiences around death, it’s not something that is experienced alone. It made me realise how isolating death can be in my own country. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Day of the Dead art is becoming increasingly popular outside of Mexico, maybe it’s time for the taboo to come out of the bag and a new approach to death to be embraced. It would be wonderful if people could also experience some of the ideology behind the art. So this year I am making my own altar and invite family and friends over to enjoy the day. I may not have a Mariachi band playing or a bottle of corona resting on a tombstone, and I don’t think my Tamales will be anywhere near as delicious, but if I can recreate even an ounce of that magical night, I’ll die happy 😉
Juan is Dead is the vision of artist Leah Reeves who’s love of mischief and other-worldliness inspired her to use her mosaic skills to create contemporary one-off pieces of art and illustrations based on the Mexican celebration Day of the Dead. Leah’s work is influenced by her Spanish ancestry and along with her passion for Mexican art has imagined the family of characters in Juan is Dead enjoying the afterlife and having ‘one hell of a party’. Their world is without worldly worries such as money, work or hangovers. Here you will find candy skulls, skeleton musicians, dancers and cool cowboys all hanging out at the bar, living life to the full.
Personal commissions are a big part of Leah’s work allowing customers to re-imagine the characters and add a personal touch and reflect their own story, offering an eccentric and creative alternative to the mundane and mass produced. You can peruse her gallery of skeletons here at: www.juanisdead.com and at her online shop www.etsy.com/uk/shop/JuanisDead or on facebook