TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The skeleton folk saint known as La Santa Muerte is the focus of a new Arizona exhibit that features the work of artists who are attempting to offer new interpretations of the underworld deity.
The 4th annual “Santa Muerte Music & Arts Festival” opened Saturday at Tucson’s Sacred Machine Museum. It features work on the death saint from 22 artists from around the world. Not only are artists from Mexico taking a stab at recasting the image, but so are artists from New Zealand and other parts of the U.S.
Paula Catherine Valencia, owner and curator of Sacred Machine, said the goal of the exhibit is to allow artists the freedom to interpret the mysterious saint.
“We didn’t necessarily tell the artists to focus on the cult of saint,” she said. “But if they wanted to, that’s fine, too.”
Popular in Mexico and sometimes linked to the illicit drug trade, La Santa Muerte in recent years has found a robust and diverse following north of the border. Her devotees include immigrant small business owners, gay activists and the poor.
Clad in a black nun’s robe and holding a scythe in one hand, La Santa Muerte appeals to people seeking all manner of otherworldly help: from fending off wrongdoing, carrying out vengeance and stopping lovers from cheating to landing better jobs. And others seek her protection for their drug shipments and to ward off law enforcement.
Shrines to the Death Saint — who has been denounced by the Vatican as Satanic — have been found during drug raids of traffickers on both sides of the border.
One piece in the Tucson exhibit shows the saint’s image on boxing gloves. Another shows La Santa Muerte with her heart connected in images of Jesus.
“Every artist shows her in different light,” Valencia said. “That’s the goal.”
La Santa Muerte was featured recently in the AMC television series “Breaking Bad,” which is filmed in Albuquerque. Mask y Mas, an Albuquerque-based store, provided show props that were used by a pair of Mexican cartel assassins who were trying to kill the series’ main character, played by Bryan Cranston.
Kiko Torres, owner of Masks y Mas, said he often sells out of La Santa Muerte statues and now has artists — from Peru and the U.S. — wanting to sell their own depictions.
“The greatest innovation of her image is happening in the U.S.,” said Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” and the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She’s definitely global now and she’s no longer just a Mexican icon.”
Sacred Machine’s Santa Muerte exhibit is open Wednesday through Sunday until November.