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Day of the Dead exhibit looks into the future by honoring the past

There are ghosts and skeletons everywhere you look on Halloween. But for many cultures the more serious commemoration of the dead takes place the next day, November 1. It’s known as el Dia de los Muertos in Latin cultures – the Day of the Dead – when parades, elaborate skeleton costumes, and temporary altars are built to honor ancestors and those who have recently passed.

The SOMArts Center, in San Francisco’s South of Market area, has been noting the occasion for the past 13 years. Rio Yanez, one of the curators of this exhibit, says this year’s theme is “Calling on the Spirits to Face the Future.”

Each year Yanez, along with his father, Rene, choose a recently departed soul who they knew for the dedicated altar. This year there were two, who died within a month of each other.

John Buchanan was director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums from 2006 until his death last December, at age 58. He continued planning shows well into the future, even after his diagnosis with cancer, because he knew that others would benefit. Daniel del Solar, the other honoree, was a Latino media activist, editor, photographer, and public media broadcaster; he was general manager of KALW from 1985 to 1992. Del Solar signed his emails, “If you want Peace, work for Justice,” and encouraged people to “live vibrantly.” He died last January, at age 71. Each man’s altar contains personal items and touchstones to their lives and work, and colleagues who knew them well constructed their altars.

The altar for del Solar contains music and video from social causes he supported. Curator Yanez says technology and politics increasingly appear in the displays, which he thinks is appropriate, especially here in the heart of the tech world. He finds one display to be particularly impressive.

“There’s an amazing altar in the exhibit by an artist named Howie Katz,” he says. “It’s an altar that has you log into your Facebook page, and based on the information on your Facebook page, it generates an altar to you, using images, sound and video.”

Stan Heller and Yanez made an altar using an older form of technology: 3-D glasses.

“We’re talking about issues of hunger, homelessness, and healthcare,” Yanez says, “but it’s also a very optimistic altar, with offerings towards positive outcomes for a lot of those situations that we’re facing.”

There were over 70 participants this year, more than ever before. Yanez won’t announce the 2013 theme for some time, but he says the results of next week’s election will “shape what the exhibit will look like.”

Whatever the appearance of those altars, and whatever subjects they portray, the creations will represent contemplation, creativity, and remembrance of things past, as those who made them look into a new year.

Calling on the Spirits to Face the Future: Día de los Muertos 2012, is on view through November 10, 2012 at SOMArts, 934 Brannan Street, San Francisco.

Audio for this story available after 5pm.