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Love, in All its Shapes and Colors, Is the Unifying Theme at Día de los Muertos Art Exhibition

Written by Christina CampodonicoPublished Oct. 07, 2022 • 12:38pm
Artist Felix Maldonado prepares to mount his pieces as part of the annual Día de los Muertos gallery show at SOMArts, a gallery space at 934 Brannan St. in the SoMa District of San Francisco on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

How can love be passed through the generations? That’s one question that SOMArts explores in its 2022 exhibition of works about or inspired by Día de los Muertos, To Love and Be Loved in Return. The show, which opens on Friday, Oct. 7, is the first public unveiling of the annual Day of the Dead gallery show since 2019.

The display of colorful ofrendas, or altars, is curated by longtime SOMArts Día de los Muertos exhibition curator and artist Rio Yañez and first-time curator and singer-songwriter Anaís Azul—and you could say it’s a bit of a family affair. 

Team members of SOMArts walk through the annual Día de los Muertos gallery show, under a piece by Azul’s father, Adrian Arias, which honors the lives of two journalists killed in the line of duty with ethereal hanging portraits of the two reporters surrounded by a painted wreath of flowers. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Both Azul and Yañez can trace their artistic lineages to the annual exhibition, whose roots stretch back to the 1970s era of the Mission District. Azul’s parents—both artists—have contributed altars to the exhibition in the past, and Azul has fond memories of running around the annual display as a child and napping in tucked-away corners of SOMArts while their parents worked on their installations. Yañez’s father, René Yañez, was the first artistic director of the influential SF Chicano art gallery Galería de la Raza and conceived of the Día de Los Muertos art exhibition decades ago. It has since come to life in some way, shape or form annually at several art spaces throughout the city—and has been shown at SOMArts for more than 20 years.

A portrait of and poems by Janice Mirikitani are on display at SOMArts. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“I kind of inherited the show from him,” said Rio Yañez, referring to his late father. The pair co-curated the show for many years before his dad died in 2018. “It started off as a very traditional way of presenting altars in a gallery setting. [] And over the years, it's evolved into more kind of conceptual and abstract interpretations of what an altar is.”

In the tradition that Rio’s father set, the Day of the Dead art installations in the exhibition aren’t strictly altars and are assembled by a multicultural and multigenerational “family” of artists that Rio has worked with over the years—as well as some new additions brought in by Azul. This year’s exhibition in particular is dedicated to Japanese American poet and educator Janice Mirikitani, who co-founded Glide Foundation and served as San Francisco’s poet laureate from 2000 to 2002.

The ofrenda created by Michelle Bonilla Garcia, called "Hermanas" and dedicated to the life of Maya Bonner, is one of the more traditional-style ofrendas at SOMArts. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

While some artworks take their design cues from traditional Mexican ofrendas created to honor deceased loved ones, others more broadly interpret the altar concept. One installation by Bay Area mixed-media sculptor Lena Coletto re-creates a beloved aunt’s laid-back patio with outdoor furniture and ceramic replicas of her aunt’s favorite foods and drinks, including a rumpled bag of Fritos, a sagging cigarette and cans of Diet Dr Pepper and Hansen’s fruit soda strewn about in a lovingly casual way. 

Two pieces—one with roses sprouting out of tiny white lunch boxes and another with spray-painted gold toy guns collaged in the shape of wings—are dedicated to the souls lost in the tragic Uvalde, Texas school shooting. A piece by Azul’s father,  Adrian Arias, honors the lives of two journalists killed in the line of duty with ethereal hanging portraits of the two reporters surrounded by a painted wreath of flowers; another by sculptor Lorraine Bonner mourns our dying planet Earth with ceramic caskets made by the artist.

Lena Coletto’s ofrenda, dedicated to her aunt, consists of enlarged sculptures of items such as chips, drinks and cigarettes. | Camille Cohen/The Standard
"A Pre-Extinction Ofrenda" is adorned with tiny, handmade coffins, which hold various items such as bullets, cell phones and plastic toothbrushes. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“And so it brings our attention to a more global grief and global love, like the love that we need to have for our Earth and the future—if we want to have a future on it,” Azul said, ruminating on Bonner’s piece.  

“We're seeing altars that are deeply personal,” Yañez said. “But there's also altars that kind of look at larger themes such as school violence.”

Carolina Quintanilla, gallery director, admires the various art pieces and ofrendas while in front of the artist Alicia Cruz’s piece, dedicated to the Uvalde community. The piece is on display at SOMArts, a gallery space at 934 Brannan St. in the SoMa District of San Francisco, for its annual Día de los Muertos gallery show. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

All of the altars are unified by the theme of love, according to Azul, who was inspired to name this year’s exhibition after a poignant lyric from the classic jazz standard, “Nature Boy.” The song, most notably performed by Nat King Cole, contains this haunting pearl of wisdom: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Ilona Sturm’s piece, "Love Is," is part of the annual Día de los Muertos gallery show at SOMArts, a gallery space at 934 Brannan St. in the SoMa District of San Francisco. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“This connects us to the dead and the living as this kind of never-ending love, even when our dear ones have departed,” observed Azul of the lyric. “What I would love audience members to experience is to feel like they're called to feel that love for their lost ones, and also to experience gratitude for what they do have now.” 

“I think it's always been about this beautiful intersection between something that is very personal, something that is political, something that is spiritual,” Yañez added.  “And I really think this exhibit embodies all of those, and they intersect in a lot of really powerful ways.” 

Friday’s opening reception and unveiling are free, but donations are encouraged, and will mark the launch of the René Yañez Legacy Fund

Sean Garahan, lead technician at SOMArts, walks into the gallery space at 934 Brannan St. in the SoMa District of San Francisco during the installation of its annual Día de los Muertos gallery show on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

To Love and Be Loved in Return: Día de los Muertos 2022

SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St.
Opening reception and unveiling: Oct. 7, 6-9 p.m. | Free with RSVP; $10 donation encouraged
The exhibition runs through Nov. 4

Christina Campodonico can be reached at

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