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Anatomy of an ofrenda

December 5th, 2012


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Chloe Sayer, a U.K. writer who specializes in Mexican art and culture, interviewed Carlomagno Pedro Martínez about the ofrenda he created in honour of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the AGO in October 2012, and Carlomagno outlined the ofrenda’s various elements and their meanings. In this post, we present his detailed descriptions, illustrated with photos of the ofrenda taken in late November.

Carlomagno: It has been a great honour to make this ofrenda for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most important 20th-century artists. As a homage to them, I have incorporated some of my own ceramic work which I have brought from my home in Oaxaca.


The ofrenda features three tzompantli. In ancient times, before the Spanish Conquest, human skulls were displayed in rows on special “skull racks” to impress visitors. This ofrenda, marking the Day of the Dead, is titled el orígen (The Origin) and is an expression of Mexican culture.

The ancient cultures of Mexico are born of maize (corn) so I have added a maize cob to the tzompantli at the top. The maize grains are shown as diminutive skulls. I have also added a jaguar, because the jaguar was central to Olmec culture — the earliest civilization in Mexico. And I have added a skeleton in fetal position, because I want to show life and death simultaneously. The skulls are infinite in number, representing generations and generations of Mexicans.



To the tzompantli that hangs on one side, I have added three female skeleton figures. They hold a heart in each hand, and they represent Death. They are La Matlacihua or Coatlicue. They are Mother Life, Mother Death and Mother Earth.



The tzompantli on the other side displays the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe — she represents the mestizo culture of modern (Christian) Mexico. I have also added the goddess Coatlicue, revered by the ancient Mexicans and representing Mother Life, Mother Death and Mother Earth. And, of huge importance in my own life, I show my mother embracing me as if I were a great treasure — and representing, in a way, all Mexicans.




A heart hangs above each tzompantli. They are about the importance of the family. The heart on the left of the ofrenda (at left above) has a picture of an Olmec “crying baby.” The heart on the right has a picture of me as a baby aged eight months. As a baby, I resembled an Olmec “crying baby” (as this type of figurine is sometimes described), so this represents my pre-Hispanic heritage.



At the base of the ofrenda we see La Matlacihua again. This time, she is a free-standing figure. The ancient goddess of Death, she ruled over the realm of the Dead. She holds a heart in each hand, once again symbolising life and death. Just above her skirt of skulls we see a small skeleton in a foetal position. At the bottom is the figure of Death nursing a child.



A large skull, placed in front of La Matlacihua, has images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the eye sockets and refers directly to them. Beside the skull is a jaguar and a maize cob. We Mexicans have a rich oral history that we have inherited from our grandparents. They are behind us, and they are represented here by the figures of an old man and an old woman. Mexican culture finds expression in the figure of la catrina — she dates from the start of the twentieth century and is dressed in the French styles that were fashionable during this period.



Centrally positioned, on the top level, is a free-standing figure of the Virgin of — the symbol, as I have said, of mestizo (Christian) culture. If you look at her back, however, you will see the image of a pre-Hispanic goddess!



This ofrenda is fairly traditional in style and is inspired by the ofrendas of Oaxaca. It is customary to put out photographs of the deceased, as I have done. The Mexican marigold, known by its ancient name of cempasúchil, is here in abundance. The adult dead are welcomed with cigarettes, chococolate, fruit, mole and mezcal. In the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, on the 31st of October, we make also offerings to children who have died. So for them, I have put out toys.

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