The annual Día de Los Muertos exhibition at SOMArts is one that Río Yañez has pledged himself to since 2006. But this year’s show—the second during the COVID-19 pandemic and the first without the physical presence of both of his renowned parents, Yolanda López and René Yañez—feels different. 

“For me, I mean it’s obviously personal,” Yañez said. “I’m putting my mother’s name on it as part of the show, and I’m doing this interview where the bed was that she passed away on six weeks ago.”

Yañez was 26 when he first began collaborating and co-curating SOMArts’ annual Día de los Muertos exhibition with his father René, and did so up until René’s death in 2018. It was then when Yañez began working and co-curating the SOMArts show with Carolina Quintanilla, who had also collaborated with René years earlier. 

Día de los Muertos art installations by 2AM and Art Hazelwood at SOMArts. Courtesy photo

And now with both Yañez and Quintanilla being the torch bearers of the iconic exhibition, both have their sights focused on the future. 

“The way that I think of this moment is the pause, like the quiet before the storm,” Quintanilla said. “I think of this as a moment of contemplation and of gathering and processing. Gathering ourselves and processing what’s happening and kind of looking around like, ‘What’s next?’”

This year’s exhibition, “Dreams Emerging, Beyond Resilience,” which is currently on display until Nov. 5, is dedicated to Yañez’s mother, Yolanda López, and to fellow arts and culture giants Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, Moira Roth, Betty Segal, and Ronnie Goodman. 

Yolanda López and her son, Rio Yañez, during Día de los Muertos, circa 1980s. Photo: Joe Ramos

The show—which this year will feature 17 installations and will be available for virtual view—traces its origins back to the 1970s, when René Yañez and the collective at Galería De La Raza began to develop art exhibits based on Día de los Muertos. 

“At the time, it was seen as a very kind of personal, cultural and spiritual practice, and I think [René’s] idea was that it was something that was really valid to stage in a gallery and present as work of art,” Yañez said. “And that was really like the seed for the kind of the scene and community of art exhibits that we have each year now.”

The show eventually became a mainstay at SOMArts, with the location providing a nurturing space for mixing cultural tradition with artistic experimentation. And that trend continues today. 

Featured artists Victor Mario Zaballa, whose participation in the exhibition dates back 30 years, went from making very traditional Day of the Dead altars to experimenting with monolithic wooden structures dressed in hand-cut papel picado. “He is just like a gift that I’ve inherited from my dad,” Yañez said. “It’s almost like the beating heart of the show.” That piece sits in the center of the gallery. 

“There’s definitely a feeling that we’re on the precipice of something and I think one of the ideas with the concept of this year’s show is to really talk about moving forward and building. And I think last year especially there was an emphasis on healing and collective grief and uncertainty and just feeling a little bit adrift, but also the beginning of the show was to create a little unity and healing and collective processing,” Yañez said. “I think with this show, we are definitely looking squarely into the future and taking lessons, taking ideas, thoughts, learning, knowledge from those that we’ve lost and looking towards the future. I think for some, it’s more conceptual, for others, it’s more literal. I think Paola de la Calle’s altar is definitely a good embodiment of what the show is about, in that it is conceptual but very much talking about building and tearing it all down, but then moving forward with something new.”

And while Día de los Muertos has served as a chance to honor and celebrate those we have lost, it has historically also given artists and creatives the platform to vocalize political expression. One of the people who the show is being dedicated to this year is Ronnie Goodman, the beloved and well-known artist who struggled with homelessness for several years in his life. 

“At this point in a gentrified metropolitan city like San Francisco, the other pandemic is homelessness and it’s our refusal to really holistically address it, to decriminalize it,” Yañez said. “Ronnie was someone who’s lived life really embodied the contradictions of living in San Francisco, and I feel like the altar does such a beautiful job of laying bear Ronnie’s experiences, his artwork, his politics and the mere fact that it exists, kind of testifies to the inequitable truths of what living in San Francisco means.”

Goodman’s altar isn’t the only installation commenting on the surrounding social inequities. Paola de la Calle’s installation is an ode to the uprisings we saw in Colombia earlier this year, and Adrian Arias’ 12-foot-tall portraits pay homage to those who have been killed by police. And while the co-curators are focused on what’s to come, the grief and losses we have collectively suffered throughout the pandemic is impossible to ignore.

“I think that even if it’s not someone close to us, we know someone who has passed away this year,” Quintanilla said. “One thing that I don’t think we talked about a lot is being around so much mourning. We’re in it. There’s no going away from it because it’s prevalent in like so many of our families and it’s this collective experience.”

But the show—especially the featured video by the artist LEXAGON aka Alexa Burell—more than anything provides hope. 

“I just hope that everybody that comes to the show really sits down and watches the whole thing,” Quintanilla said. “That video ends with a line she says, ‘This is for everyone who has resurrected from grief.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean, you can resurrect from this?’ It just gave me so much hope.” 

“Dreams Emerging, Beyond Resilience” runs from now until Nov. 5, is Free. To check out the virtual exhibition, visit somarts.org/dreamsemergingvirtual. And the Día de Los Muertos Drag Show, featuring beloved queen Per Sia, will be streaming on Friday, Oct. 29, 7:30 PM on SOMArts’ Facebook and Twitch channels. For more information, visit somarts.org/dreamsemergingstream