The Welcoming Dead

Artist Hank Tusinski’s Día de los Muertos installation at the TMA is both joyous and solemn

The All Souls Procession is still over a week away—it rolls out on Sunday, Nov. 8—but a skeleton band is already on the march at the Tucson Museum of Art.

Ten musicians, along with a couple of skeletal cats and a dog, are prancing in a gallery, fully outfitted with band instruments. The cymbalist has devised his own dance—left knee raised up, right knee bent low—and he's decked out for Día de los Muertos in a scarf printed with pirate skulls and bones; a black beret sits on his own boney cabeza.

His fellow dead musicians are equally jaunty: a hipster accordionist in big-framed eyeglasses; a grinning triangle player in a woman's flowered straw hat; a tuba player in a 10-gallon cowboy hat bringing up the rear. In the center of this squad of merry minstrels, a bony fellow stands atop a stool to play his big guitar—a monster Mexican guitarrón.

Tucson artist Hank Tusinski is the magician who's brought the skeletons of this "~:Banda Calaca:~"—Skeleton Band—if not to life, then to a state of arty undeadness.

His lively cavalcade of esqueletos is actually immobile, but Tusinski has made each skeletal musician rhythmic, full of curves and movement. They started out as swirling pencil sketches (the preliminary drawings are displayed on the wall); then metamorphosed into papier-mâché sculptures, each one laboriously shaped and painted by the artist. It's hard to say these figures of the dead are life-sized; let's just say they're as big as your average human skeleton when he, or she, stands up to dance.

The grinning skeletons are on route to a nearby ofrenda; Tusinski made it as a giant version of the flower-decked home altars that Mexicans assemble to commemorate departed loved ones. Sitting by the altar is a sexy female skeleton dressed in red and black, and adorned, natch, with skull earrings. Peering into a hand-mirror, she applies red lipstick to the bone around her big skeleton teeth. She's a Day of the Dead iteration of the old art-history trop of the "vanities" – a warning that beauty and life itself are all too fleeting.

Tusinski's exuberant installation takes up a whole room in the museum; besides the band and altar, it features a brightly colored circus canopy, gorgeous color Day of the Dead photos, hand-crafted lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and butterflies—symbols of death and rebirth—clinging to the walls.

The trappings of Día de los Muertos have an irresistible visual appeal to artists, including non-Mexicans. Grinning skeletons are fun, to be sure, but the festival is a serious cultural tradition. It marks a time when the spirits of the dead come close, and families welcome them home with foods and mementos in home altars. They also go out to the cemetery to spruce up the family plots and picnic graveside with their lost loved ones.

Tusinski, a Zen Buddhist who once lived in a monastery, has long been a dedicated student of Día de los Muertos, seeing it as a profound exploration of the fundamental mystery of death. For 15 years, he's traveled south of the border to document the festival in photographs. His photos from Nogales lovingly portray the bounties of marigolds—flowers of the dead—that the Sonorenses pile on their family members' resting places. The Nogales holiday mixes the solemn rituals with a carnival atmosphere, with barkers calling out jingles and kids riding a Ferris wheel.

Deeper in Mexico, in states like Michoacán with large indigenous populations, as Tusinski notes in a wall text, people adhere more closely to the traditional Festival of the Spirit, the holiday's pre-Conquest incarnation. There, skeletons, butterflies and music are "manifestations of the spirit," Tusinski writes. Butterflies represent the returning spirits of the dead, who come back "to bring good will to people in the present."

His heartfelt photos of the nighttime rituals in Michoacán capture the sacredness of these days of the dead. In the dark graveyard, their faces lit by candles, the mourners sit close to the remains of their departed loved ones, pondering, perhaps, the lives lost and the lives that still