As the Bay Area prepares for the painful one-year anniversary of the Dec. 2 Ghost Ship warehouse fire, many have taken to existing local traditions for rituals of remembrance.
At San Francisco’s SOMArts, two of the altars in the institution’s 18th annual Día de los Muertos exhibition, Remembrance and Resistance, are dedicated to victims of the fire. And at the Oakland Museum of California, an altar made by Peter Foucault and Chris Treggiari for the museum’s Days of the Dead biennial bears the names of the 36 Ghost Ship victims, along with four names of those who lost their lives in the West Oakland apartment fire on March 27.
Foucault and Treggiari’s altar started taking shape soon after Dec. 2, 2016, at one of OMCA’s Friday Nights. They’d lost a collaborator in the fire: Alex Ghassan, a filmmaker who produced three videos for Treggiari’s Oakland, I want you to know… exhibition (and also worked frequently as an on-call producer for KQED Arts). As Oakland reeled in the wake of the event, OMCA invited visitors to fill out a cards “in memory of those lost.”
“A lot of that was just real, raw emotion,” says Evelyn Orantes, who curated Oakland, I want you to know… and the museum’s current Days of the Dead exhibition, Metamorphosis & Migration. “It was a week after the fire happened, and it was a rough period.”
Nearly a year later, the altar now on view in the museum bears the names of the 40 victims of both fires in stitched thread — a painstaking undertaking completed in over 200 hours by Shannon Foucault, Peter’s wife. Notes written since the show opened on Oct. 18 are now joining last year’s messages.
“People are contributing, but they’re also reading,” Orantes says. “There’s a dialogue that’s going in through the spoken, the written, and the visual, and we want to be able to have a site where that exchange can happen. We hope this expands the dialogue in a meaningful way.”
At SOMArts, Susan Matthew’s installation Ghost Ship Memorial is also punctuated by notes of remembrance and mourning. A replica of the painting that once adorned the Ghost Ship warehouse’s exterior — a skull with windswept hair — hovers over hand-painted hearts bearing the names of each victim of the fire. Beneath Cash Askew’s name, someone has written “Love you Cash.” Post-it notes with personal messages surround the altar.
Nearby, Likeness, an altar dedicated to Ghost Ship fire victim Jason “JSUN” McCarty, includes McCarty’s own art and work by six of his friends. At the top of the pink foil-covered space is a painted portrait of McCarty, with colorful images — including some of McCarty’s signature plaid jacket — lining the walls below.
Traditional celebrations recognize Día de los Muertos as a day for the dead to visit the living, and for the living to celebrate and remember the dead. For Angelica Rodriguez, gallery coordinator at the Mission Cultural Center (which this year hosts its 30th annual Día de los Muertos exhibition, titled En El Cielo Como En La Tierra), getting comfortable with talking about death is part of the event. Leading 60 to 80 tours each year through the MCC’s exhibition, she talks about death on near-daily basis.
“Having to remember and having to grieve about death puts you in the space where you see your own life reflected,” she says. “I think that’s one of the most powerful things; to use that time and space to contemplate death is very healthy. Death is very much part of American culture, but we don’t allow ourselves to feel and express that.”
That’s why, she says, there’s such an appeal to Día de los Muertos as a celebration — and not just for the Latinx community. “If it wasn’t healthy, people wouldn’t gravitate towards it,” she says.
‘Metamorphosis & Migration: Days of the Dead’ is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through Jan. 14, 2018. For more information, click here.
‘Remembrance and Resistance’ is on view at SOMArts through Nov. 9, 2017. For more information, click here.
‘En El Cielo Como En La Tierra’ is on view at the Mission Cultural Center through Nov. 17, 2017. For more information, click here.
The Marigold Project’s annual Festival of Altars takes place in San Francisco’s Garfield Park on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, 4-11pm with a procession beginning at 7pm at 22nd and Bryant Streets. For more information, click here.
Joshua Bote contributed research to this story.