After a time, Ogden Museum of Southern Art Curator Bradley Sumrall had to check artist George Dureau’s pockets because he kept smuggling in oil crayons to touch up his paintings that were on display in the museum. But that was Dureau’s style: always attempting to perfect what was already finished.
Dureau, who Sumrall called New Orleans’ “last frontier of Bohemia,” died April 7, but he is still remembered as one of the single most important New Orleans artists.
“He still lives on in a big way,” Sumrall said in the lobby of the Ogden. “New Orleans Museum of Arts still regularly displays his artwork. The Ogden obviously still regularly displays his artwork. He had a lasting influence on several generations of both painters and photographers here in the city and elsewhere.”
Now the Ogden will feature a Day of the Dead altar dedicated to Dureau and built by Southern University of New Orleans professor and local artist Cynthia Ramirez. And in classic Dureau fashion, the Ogden likes to consider it a work in progress as they continue to add various small memories, notes and pictures of the great New Orleans artist.
The idea of the Day of the Dead altar comes from a hybridization of the Catholic holiday All Saints Day and an ancient Aztec festival. It’s a collection of items that signify a person who has passed, hoping that for one day it will call back that person’s spirit. But it really comes down to paying homage and respect to the deceased.
To Ramirez, going through the person’s items that you have is what brings them back.
“You start to think about the person as you’re putting them up,” she said. “So through that, you’re bringing them back to life because you’re thinking about them. What they’ve done in life. Why they’re important. It’s a very meditative thing for me.”
The greatest worry that Ramirez and others share is that people who believe that Day of the Dead has connections to voodoo or the occult will misunderstand it. And it’s tough not to get frustrated by the misinformation that’s passed through our culture by the media and Halloween.
“Halloween starts to confuse this idea of Day of the Dead and the media picks up on Day of the Dead and creates glorified horror movies about it,” said Denise Woltering, senior program manager at Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies.
“But it’s something we miss out on the real history behind. Some of the major artists of the tradition — Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo — are really important figures, not just in Mexico but also in the world. Learning about where these images of the skulls and altars and papel picado, the hanging tissue papers, is a really interesting part of it.”
To battle the stigma surrounding Day of the Dead, Tulane’s Stone Center and the Ogden are teaming up and hosting two workshops at the museum for teachers and families. Teachers will learn how to incorporate the Day of the Dead celebration in their classrooms and families will work to create their own ofrendas or altars.
Teachers and families will pull together memories with the requisite sugar skulls, the depictions of earth, wind, fire and water, papel picados or cut tissue paper and of course the marigold flowers that must be present to call the spirit to the altar. But in actively participating, workshop attendees will learn that these old rituals are analogous to our own death traditions.
“Our hope is to help educate and engage teachers in Day of the Dead and dispel myths about Day of the Dead,” Woltering said.
“It’s typically something that some schools or teachers are hesitant about bringing into the classroom, but it’s something that we’re hoping to better inform teachers about because it’s a long tradition that we share in our culture with Mexico with our Soul’s Day in New Orleans, and it’s a tradition across many cultures.”
Ramirez laughs when she thinks about how people first react to the altars because she considers how misplaced the fear is.
“People say, ‘Aren’t you scared?’? And I say, ‘Why would I be scared of my grandmother?’ Why would I be scared of these people who I loved, to experience them just for one day?” She laughs again.
“It’s a nice tradition.”