Wearable of the Week # 10: A Day of the Dead Special!

Over the next two days Te Papa is celebrating Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead in conjunction with the exhibition Aztecs: Conquest and Glory. Whether you are marking Day of the Dead or All Souls Day aka Halloween, what better garment to chose for this week’s ‘Wearable’ than Mercy Brewer’s ghoulish yet alluring La Danse Macabre?

The face of death - La Danse Macabre by Mercy Brewer (NZ), 2012. World of WearableArt. Photo: Kate Whitely, Te Papa.

The face of death – La Danse Macabre by Mercy Brewer (NZ), 2012. World of WearableArt. Photo: Kate Whitely, Te Papa.

Mercy’s 2012 entry, which won her the First Time Entrant Award at the 2012 World of WearableArt™ Awards, was inspired by childhood memories of skeletons drawn on gravestones and stained-glass windows, and the medieval Danse Macabre or ‘dance of death’.

Danse Macabre by Mercy Brewer (NZ), 2012. World of WearableArt. Photo by:

Danse Macabre by Mercy Brewer (NZ), 2012. World of WearableArt. Photograph by Daniel Allen.

During the Dance of Death a personification of death would call people to join him in a dance to the grave. The ritual was developed during the late-medieval period as a reminder to people of the fagility of life and the universality of death, whether they were a king or a pauper.

In 19th century the  French composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a song for voice and piano and then an opus entitled Danse Macabre. The latter was first performed in 1875. Both are based on the following poem (English translation) by Henri Cazalis, which in turn draws on the age old superstition that skeletons rose from the grave on All Souls eve (Halloween).

Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack—
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

You can listen to (and watch) Saint-Saëns’ opus performed by Les Clefs de l’orchestre de Jean-François Zygel avec l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France here - it is easy to imagine Mercy Brewer’s wonderful skeleton waltzing slowly at first, and then whirling to sound of the solo violin and accompanying strings.  Altneratively, watch an animated response to the composition directed by S E Henderson of See Me Fly Productions - one of many posted on Youtube.

You are invited to join us at Te Papa this weekend for a range of Day of the Dead activities, including a procession, sugar skull workshops with Mexican artist William Franco, marigold and papel picado making workshops and a Day of the Dead alter. Make sure you pop up to Level 4 to The WOW Factor to see Mercy Brewer’s extraordinary interpretation of the dance of death, and be sure to look close. There is much to be discovered in her beautiful applique and detailing. 

Sugar skull, 2012, made by William Franco. Photo courtesy of the artist.

‘Wearable of the Week’ is posted in conjunction with The WOW Factor: 25 Years in the Making, which is on display at Te Papa until 17 August 2014. For more on the World of WearableArt™ visit WOW® online.

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