Honour the Day of the Dead with these bone-chilling works of art

Colourful sugar skulls and the grinning La Calavera Catrina: even if you've never celebrated The Day of the Dead, you're likely familiar with its bony iconography. Today, the departed are honoured with gifts like flowers and sweets. Our offering? Skull art created by Canadians. Some pieces are steeped in tradition, others just find beauty — among other things — in mortal remains. Should it please the dead, a listicle…

Skulls on skulls on Maskulls

Dressed as "Catrinas," people celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico City. (Associated Press/Esteban Felix)

Colourful sugar skulls and the grinning La Calavera Catrina: even if you've never celebrated The Day of the Dead, you're likely familiar with its bony iconography. Today in Mexico and elsewhere, the departed are honoured with gifts like flowers and sweets. Our offering? Skull art created by Canadians. Some pieces are steeped in tradition, others just find beauty — among other things — in mortal remains. Should it please the dead...

Ricky Sosa. El Poder del Shaman. (Revolucionario.ca)
Ricky Sosa. Estrella Roja. (Revolucionario.ca)

Ricky Sosa, Revolucionario Design Co.

These skulls, hand-beaded by Toronto-by-way-of-Mexico (and Vancouver) artist Ricky Sosa, feature psychedelic designs inspired by Wixáritari tradition. They're meant to be a "symbol of change — good and bad," he says. As Sosa writes on his website: "I love traditions, it's basically our heritage of the knowledge from the past. Subconsciously my origins and culture influence me, it's just difficult to explain how or in what way.

"In Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, the skull is a reminder of death, but it reminds people that while death is a misfortune, it can also be seen as 'the ultimate liberation.'"

Jennifer Murphy. Gem Skull, 2010. (Clint Roenisch Gallery)
Jennifer Murphy. Butterfly Skull, 2010. (Clint Roenisch Gallery)

Jennifer Murphy, Twenty Pearls

"Life and death in full bloom." That's one way to describe these images by Toronto artist Jennifer Murphy, cut-and-sewn paper skulls that comprise a lattice-work of gems and animals and flowers — and more skulls — to create delicate webs of the natural world. These pieces were part of Murphy's 2010 exhibition, Twenty Pearls.

Marina Malvada's chocolate skulls. (Chocolateskulls.com)

Marina Malvada, Chocolate Skulls

In 2005, Montreal's Marina Malvada gave the traditional sugar skull a luxury upgrade. Using a cast of a real human cranium, the artist — whose abstract work is informed by geology and the natural world — began creating chocolate skulls to order.

John McEwen. Liquid Air (Skull), 2014. (DNA Art Space)

John McEwen, Liquid Air (Skull)

We are all made of stars — something we share with this sculpture by John McEwen. The Ontario artist is well-known for creating forms from webs of steel stars, and for some 30 years, McEwen's work has largely explored our relationship with nature and the Canadian landscape. This piece, called Liquid Air (Skull) was part of the 2014 exhibition, Beauty Beneath the Bone. 

David R. Harper. Settlement in the Place of Longing (detail), 2015. (Gardiner Museum)

David R. Harper, Settlement in the Place of Longing

As one of this year's RBC Emerging Artists People's Choice Award, David R. Harper's Settlement in the Place of Longing appeared at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. The piece mixed textiles with ceramic representations of bones, including these delicate skulls.

Harper says he is frequently inspired by natural history. "These eccentric fusions of nature and culture are the uneasy disguises of pathos and pride that allow us to recognize and even celebrate an 'other's' mortality while deferring our own. In my work, I am attempting to re-create moments in order to be reminded of them, knowing that the replication is the ritual."

Maskull Lasserre. Incarnate (Three Degrees of Certainty II), 2012. (Maskull Lasserre)

Maskull Lasserre, Incarnate (Three Degrees of Certainty II)

He's transformed grenades into music boxes and punching bags into pianos. Montreal sculptor Maskull Lasserre is known for eking art out of ordinary objects, but then, as a CBC Arts viewer, you knew that. (If not, watch his episode of The Re-Education of Eddy Rogo .) For this piece, he spent 200 hours carving a human skull into a stack of old computer manuals. As he told CBC Arts earlier this year: "I never make anything that I understand. I make things that I don't understand and then try to achieve some sort of comprehension through the process. If there's a question I can't figure out any other way, it means I've got to make something about it."

Brian Jungen. Skull, 2006. (Brian Jungen)

Brian Jungen, Skull

A skull made out of baseballs? What a knuckleball-head. Dad-jokes aside, this piece is created by Vancouver artist Brian Jungen, whose sculptures adapt familiar manufactured goods, deconstructing our concepts of the items themselves, and their relationship to the world around us. A member of the Dane-zaa First Nation, Jungen's art frequently explores his heritage. He includes traditional techniques in the construction of much of his work.

Winnie Truong. Debutante, 2014. (Winnie Truong)
Winnie Truong. Pearl, 2014. (Winnie Truong)

Winnie Truong, Rites of Passage

They say your hair keeps growing long after you die, in which case, we should all be so lucky to have posthumous locks as lovely as those drawn by Toronto's Winnie Truong. Per her artist statement: "Focusing on the subject of hair, [Truong] imagines its new possibilities beyond ornament and towards living objects and environments."

Shanell Papp. Lab, 2013. (Shanell Papp)

Shanell Papp, Lab

Why stop at the skull? For Lab, Shanell Papp of Lethbridge, AB crocheted a whole cadaver, creating bones and organs (and even the deceased's partially-digested lunch) out of wool. For another project, Bonebook, she embroidered life-size skeletons into canvas.

Jennifer James. Granville Island International Day of the Dead Tour, 2015. (Granville Island International Day of the Dead Tour)

Granville Island International Day of the Dead Tour

Electric Youth-era Debbie Gibson, eat your heart out. This crimped perm Catrina is the creation of Vancouver's Jennifer James, and she's one of several international artists participating in a special art crawl happening now around Granville Island. It's the International Day of the Dead Tour, a free exhibition that places artful skulls, such as this one, in the galleries and shops of the popular district. Mexican artisans crafted the skulls,before they were re-purposed by the 15 participants. They're on display to November 8. 

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