Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Forgotten Stories, Remarkable Lives"

By Stephanie Wright Hession

Every year since the age of 12, Hector Dionicio Mendoza has painted a portrait of what he imagines his twin brother, Jesus, might look like at his age. Jesus died as a newborn, and recently, Mendoza created and dedicated an altar to his brother.

Mendoza is one of a group of artists displaying altars and installations for the exhibition, "Forgotten Stories, Remarkable Lives: Días de los Muertos 2012." It's part of the Oakland Museum of California's 18th annual Days of the Dead, which remembers deceased loved ones and celebrates their lives.

"I am doing my own version of an altar," says Mendoza, an Oakland resident who works as a visual and public art instructor at California State University, Monterey Bay. "I'm actually doing a site-specific installation that includes a small table - and it has an element that relates to the traditional altar - but I'm doing more of a contemporary view of what an altar would be."

A mixed-media piece incorporating wood and insulation foam, it centers upon the ebony-colored table, which acts as the canvas for the first painting of Jesus, depicting him as a crying infant and completed in the style of the Old Masters. Peering through a small, circular mirror placed on the floor beneath the table allows the viewer to see the second portrait, which Mendoza painted when he turned 21. Above the altar, vertical strips of vividly colored paper represent a modern take on papel picado, the traditional perforated banners used for Día de los Muertos.
Altar by Hector Dionicio Mendoza.  Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

"I definitely wanted to do a piece that paid homage to my twin brother but also for the piece to be more open and dedicated to the los angelitos, the children who died young in life," says Mendoza, who was born in Uruapan, Mexico, grew up in King City (Monterey County) and earned his master of fine arts degree from the Yale University School of Art.

Intertwining elements of California history, "Forgotten Stories, Remarkable Lives" tells the tales of ordinary people and their contributions, which often go unnoticed. It also features the work of Adrian Arias, Cece Carpio, Brett Cook, Rob-O, Imelda Martinez and Jenifer Wofford, as well as community altars by museum docents and students from the Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland and Tennyson High School in Hayward.
Altar by Adrian Arias (above). Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.
Altar by Cece Carpio (above). Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.
Altar by Brett Cook (above). Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

For their altar, artists Rob-O and Martinez focus on agricultural workers from the Bracero Program, which permitted temporary contract laborers from Mexico to work in the United States and ended in the 1960s. For the piece, Rob-O created an elaborate sugar skull embellished with fine details and crimson roses. Through her research, Martinez discovered that both sets of her grandparents participated in the program.
Altar by Rob-O and Imelda Martinez. Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

"In organizing the show, I wanted to honor people in the sense that they make up California. When thinking about that, the Oakland Museum's history collection is wonderful because it really tries to take history and personalize it," says guest curator Eduardo Pineda, the former museum educator for the Museum of the African Diaspora and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"I find that's the way to understand history," he continues. "We all are making history every day."

Community celebration: noon-4:30 p.m. Sunday. Free with museum admission. Exhibition runs through Dec. 9. 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Free-$12. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. (510) 318-8400.