I’ve just finished assembling my first Ofrenda and it has been a most interesting exercise to put it together. I’ve mixed cultural influences, adding in items that were personal to me or to the people mentioned – or alluded to – in the assemblage.
Following and taking inspiration from the Latino ofrendas, family altars which appear in mid and central America as a focal part of the celebrations of the Dias de Los Muertos – (the Days of the Dead, All Souls/All Saints/Halloween/Samhain, October 31st/November 1st), my 'Anglo-Ofrenda' is built to honour my female ancestors. But the central image is one which represents (I have no actual image of the person - the photograph is from my collection of Victorian Cartes-de-Visite), one Mary Nankivell and her child William. I only discovered their existence in the last year – and they are inextricably bound up with my story, even though they have no genetic connection to me.
Mary and William were the first wife and child of Frederick William Nankivell – my great-grandfather. But Mary died of tuberculosis and complications of childbirth on the 25th March 1886 – three weeks after giving birth to William. Baby William himself died three days later, of starvation. It was a year after their death that Frederick met and married my great-grandmother, Margaret Norris Humby – possibly to provide a mother for the surviving son of himself and Mary. The reason that she features as the focus of my ofrenda is in recognition that, had she not died, my grandmother, mother and myself would simply not have existed. I mourn and remember Mary and the sadness of her death and that of her child.
The photographs on the entrance of the Ofrenda show, top to bottom, left to right, my great grandmother (Frederick’s second wife) Margaret Norris Humby, with her grandson, George…my grandmother, Lilian Mary Nankivell/Silcox (George’s mother), my own beloved mother, Lilian Mary Louvaine Silcox/Latham, And myself, Roslyn Mary Latham/Cawley. (I have photographs of all of us with our own children, which I had wanted to use, but my colour printer is ‘playing up’, so one sometimes has to make do with what is available!). These are not just physical images of individuals who physically existed, but a visual depiction and remembrance of the intangible – the love which has also been handed down through the generations, and which, I hope, now radiates out from the creation of this ofrenda. I’m hoping that by showing my first ever, very amateur experiment with making this very simple assemblage, others will be encouraged to experiment with creating a place of focus where remembrance, mourning and celebration of their own heritage can take place.
I started – and the whole assemblage is made – with all recycled materials. The central support is created using cat-food boxes and a piece of scrap mounting board, which I taped together with masking tape and painted with acrylic paint, after cutting an aperture in one side. I lined the inside of the top box with recycled kitchen foil, to reflect the light from the votive candles, which themselves sit in recycled cat food tins. These little tins are made of thin aluminium, which is very easy to punch into simple patterns with a sharp point – I used a bradawl.
That was the only construction work needed…the rest was assembly. I stood the two top candles and the piece of Staffordshire pottery folk art on a large cardboard box, which I have covered with an old piece of Indian sari fabric in hot pink. (The colours are important – I initially used black felt, because I thought it would ‘show off’ the pottery, but it looked quite wrong. The pink fabric immediately united all the items in the assemblage and made them ‘sing’).
The pottery couple were chosen to depict Frederick and his first wife Mary in their happiness, before tragedy befell them. Below them, I have attached a Portuguese, painted folk-art tin heart, bought in Lisbon. In the silvered frame The ‘Madonna and Child with Bird’ by the 18th century Peruvian artist Ignacio Chacon, is a much loved image from a Christmas card, sent to me by a dear internet friend, Margaret…this image and the large cross in the middle of the assemblage are both acknowledgements of the fondness my mother had for the Roman Catholic church. Although she was not baptized a Catholic, she went to a Roman Catholic school until she was seven, where she was educated by, and kept a life-long affection for the nuns there. Though Protestant by baptism, she remained a Catholic at heart and in many of her beliefs, to the end of her life.
My mother appears in the photograph on the left hand side of the picture, and in front of her, a ‘fairing’ -another little piece of folk pottery that could be purchased or won at fairs all over the country in the past. It is of three Welsh Ladies, to allude to the fact that my Mam was born and lived most of her life in Wales, only leaving when she was over 70 to come to live with me.
And finally, the row of fabric hearts in front of the bottom votives are a hand-made gift from Tim’s fiancee, Koo – another woman who is now part of my family – another link in the chain.
It’s been a fascinating exercise to carry out. I have been inspired by the colourful, decorative aspects of the Latin Dias de Los Muertos for several years now, discovering so much about them during my University MA Death Studies. But I admit, as I worked, I also wondered how those commemorated by me in this manner would feel about being included in such a ‘foreign’ way of acknowledging death. I come from Bible-black Protestant Wales, where such excesses of colour and emotion in religious practice – especially that associated with somber Death, would have been heartily frowned upon. Was I honouring, or in some way, dis-respecting my ancestors? It has sometimes been an uneasy feeling.
I will never know. This has finally just been my way of remembering them, of reflecting on their happinesses and great hardships, and being grateful for the fact that I have been privileged enough NOT to suffer the great struggles and tragedies which were a thread through most women’s lives – in some shape or form – in every other generation before mine. They still exist for millions of other women today who are not as fortunate as me.
For all this good fortune, and for all these brave women, I remember and give thanks. This last candle is for them.
(I will be participating in Rebecca and Stephanie's 'Dia de Bloglandia' on November 1st - where you can also follow links to many other celebratory pages - see you there? Come and join the party and the memories!))