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Arts to Watch 2018: Julio Gonzalez Confronts Death

Dia de Los Casi Muertos

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When multi-disciplinary artist Julio Gonzalez first launched his best-known project, Dia de Los Casi Muertos, or Day of the Almost Dead, he was overwhelmed with submissions. Coming up on its fourth year, Dia de Los Casi Muertos began after Gonzalez saw a red flag — the specter of cultural appropriation marring one of his favorite holidays, Halloween.

"A few years back I saw that a lot of people were using the sugar skull face paint [of the ancient Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration] as a last-minute Halloween costume," Gonzalez, an artist-in-residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, says. "I thought, 'They have no concept of the tradition.'"

Julio Gonzalez. (Photo by Chris Edwards)
  • Julio Gonzalez. (Photo by Chris Edwards)

Instead of just painting faces, Gonzalez decided to adorn the subjects of his work with full-body skeletal-yet-colorful, Day of the Dead-style body paint. The artist got so many responses that the project snowballed into something much bigger — an examination of how different cultures deal with death.

"I started making full-body photographs, but I also started doing video interviews," Gonzalez says. "Sometimes they were funny, sometimes sad."

Focusing on a population often ignored in our youth-centric culture, subjects older than 40, Gonzales asked questions like - "What would you like to have happen to your body when you're dead?" and "Have you ever been present when someone's passed away?"

"The more people I interviewed, the harder it was to get stories I hadn't heard before," he says. "I'm changing it from an annual project to a biannual event, so I can focus on quality"

Gonzales will be working on Dia de Los Casi Muertos during his residency at McColl, which has been extended through August 2018, but he will not reveal any new photos or interviews until 2019.

In the meantime, he will start exhibiting brand new work at the gallery, pieces that draw on what he calls his Pre-Columbian heritage. (His father is Mexican and his mother hails from Honduras.)

The new project revolves around a set of questions: What would Pre-Columbian people have done if they had access to modern technology? What would they had crafted had they lived in a colder climate?

One of the first pieces Gonzalez will roll out is his take on a traditional Pre-Columbian headdress, except that instead of being fashioned from feathers, this artifact will be knitted. The cozy yet colorful headdresses will be joined in the exhibition by woodblock prints depicting classic Pre-Columbian motifs. The difference with these designs is that they will be fashioned on a 3-D printer.

"Eventually the work will touch on colonialism and how it has affected Latin American cultures,' Gonzales says. "I'd like viewers to think about where we are now as a society, and how we got here within in the context of history."

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