Friday, October 17, 2008

Pete & Charles:

Since I managed to get the skeleton painting done, I decided to see if I could make something connected to "You'll Always Come Back", the family history project in progress, for the Dias de los Muertos celebration at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. This photo is of the raw materials for an altar dedicated to Pete and Charles.

In Mexico the altars are called ofrenda, or offering. The English word altar has a latin root meaning a place where something, a sacrifice or incense, presumably, is burnt. On the Mexican ofrendas, that incense would be copal, the wonderful scented resin of a sacred tree, used at least since the time of the ancient Mayans. Luckily my friend Lucy B. brought me some on her last visit from Mexico.

"On 30 or 31 October, according to local custom, if not begun before, the ofrenda will be constructed. The whole family will probably play some part in this. A table is set up, or... a platform suspended from the roof beams of the house, covered with a white or embroidered cloth or perhaps decorative plastic sheeting. It is usually set up close to the permanent household altar for the saints.
Above the table, framing the front of the offering, an arch is constructed using supple canes which is then decorated with palm or other green leaves and sometimes sugar canes. This is then embellished with an arrangement of flowers, fruits and other ornaments. A cloth may be draped above the arch to make a 'sky' (cielo) over the offering. There may be tissue paper tied into decorative forms adorning the arch and table, or papeles picados (sheets of multi-colored tissue paper with punched or cut-out designs.
On the table are placed pictures or figures of particular saints, a Virgin or a Christ, of importance to the family. Candles of various types and candlesticks are placed both on and before the offering; the candles are sometimes set into a section of a banana plant set up on wooden trestles. Before the table will be a new petate, a rush or palm-leaf mat upon which the incense burners are placed ready for use.
If the family have portraits or photographs of the deceased, these will be given a central position on the offering, although this is not common in Indian households. More vases of flowers will complete the decorations, leaving only space for the food offerings which will follow.
The most widely held belief is that the souls of children return first, and food and gifts appropriate to their age and tastes will be set out for them. ...the adult dead return on November 1st and are, in their turn, given the most splendid offering of foods and drinks the family can afford. In addition to the breads there may be biscuits of various kinds, sugar figures, fresh and candied fruits, especially candied pumpkin... Cooked dishes might include chicken or turkey in mole, and certainly various forms of tamales, enchiladas, and chalupas are made ready in abundance... "

(The Skeleton at the Feast; The Day of the Dead in Mexico / Elizabeth Carmichael & Chloe Sayer)

I made the border of my ofrenda with photos of flowers in my garden - the traditional Mexican "flower of the dead", the cempasuichil, an ancient variety of marigold, associated with festivals for the dead since pre-Hispanic times, and the cockscomb, or mano de leon (lion's paw).

I don't have a photograph of Pete or Charles, and it seems unlikely I'll find one. So far my research has found no pre-1900 photographs of African Americans in this county at all. The image I've chosen is from the Library of Congress archives, of two boys whose names and location are unknown. They look as though they might be close to the ages that Pete and Charles were in 1845 when they arrived at Dutton Hill, 6 and 8. I included a photo of Pete's tombstone in the Dutton Cemetery, and the engraved image of the run-away slave from the wanted ad for Charles Dutton sent to me by historian Kate Larson. I doubt that it's the same Charles, but the family story concerning Charles is only two words; "He left."

If and when more information emerges about Pete and Charles, I'm sure that other and more complex images will present themselves in my imagination, but for now, this will do.

The first time that I was truly impressed by the power of the internet was when it allowed me to engage in an email conversation with the great Nigerian writer, poet and dramatist, Wole Soyinka. Two of his plays, Death and the King's Horsemen, and The Road, had a profound effect on how I think about, and work with images. Here's a sample of his work:

"Yoruba metaphysics holds the view of there being three major areas of existence. What you might call the traditional Yoruba sensibility is constantly in touch with and aware of these three. It's the world of the unborn, the world of the dead, and the world of the living. There is a mutual correspondence between these three areas. But I believe there is also a fourth which is not often articulated but which I recognize as implicit. It is not made obviously concrete by the rituals, by the philosophy that is articulated by the Ifa priests. This is the fourth area -- the area of transition. It is the chthonic realm, the area of the really dark forces, the really dark spirits, and it also is the area of stress of the human will."


Mary Beth said...

¡Feliz Dia de los Muertos amigo mio!

¡Danza, danza con los antepasados!

Dan Dutton said...

Thanks! I'd love to have time (& maybe someday I will.) to attend the feast days in Mexico. A few years ago I went to Quintanaroo & I loved it so. The Mayans are so elegant and friendly, and their food is peerless. A part of my heart planted itself firmly in the jungle there and I get homesick for it.
I suppose that's the right word. It seems odd for such a homeboy.

One thing I noticed there that I haven't seen a mention of in any of the books I've read about Dias de los Muertos is that the altar structures, when made out of 4 canes that form a 4 quartered sky above the platform, look identical in form to the ones made for the chacs (rain gods) at the edge of the Mayan milpas (cornfields). Driving along a back road, I noticed an odd thing like a birdhouse at the edge of a cornfield. I stopped and looked at it closer and couldn't figure out, at the time, what it could be. In later research I discovered an anthropologist's diagram of the structure made to "house" - or more properly, I suppose, connect or attract, the 4 chacs of the directions. The text claimed that these constructions are built when a milpa is made, and then renewed periodically.

Hey Alan E., that reminds me, do you have Chac the Raingod? (a wonderful film IN MAYAN! ~ worth hunting down.)