Transform Festival public artwork is 'a fusion of Leeds and Mexico City'

As part of Transform Festival, a large-scale commemorative public artwork by The Grief Series and Zion Studio comes to Leeds. Yvette Huddleston reports.

The Ofrenda by Zion Collective and The Grief Series for Transform 21 to 22. Picture: Matt Rogers.

A new public artwork in the centre of Leeds forms the reflective centrepiece of this year’s extended Transform Festival and speaks poignantly to the collective global loss of the past 20 months.

Launched last week, The Ofrenda is a large-scale installation which will occupy the exterior window at CLAY (Centre for Live Art Yorkshire) until next spring.

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A gift to the city, it is the culmination of a four-year collaboration between Leeds-based company The Grief Series and Mexico City’s Zion Arts Studio, a collective of artists whose creative practice includes papercraft and sculpture.

The piece is inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition when individuals, families and communities construct Ofrendas (Spanish for ‘offerings’) for their lost loved ones.

Often brightly coloured, the displays feature photographs, flowers, food, candles and significant objects relating to the person who is being commemorated and range in size from the small and stripped back to the huge and extravagant.

“In the wake of the pandemic, we have been thinking carefully about how we can create collective rituals that help us to have a focus,” says Ellie Harrison, artistic director of The Grief Series.

“How can we create moments of community, connection and celebration. In the UK a lot of our remembrance rituals focus on silence and darkness, while in Mexico they have music and light. Ofrenda are much more about life and love than about the moment of someone leaving. Marco Medina the founder of Zion describes the Day of the Dead as ‘a chance to gather with our living loved ones and our lost loved ones’.”

Over the past few months, Harrison and her team have been in communication over Zoom and email with the artists at the Zion Studio who have sent them detailed drawings and designs which incorporate into the artwork recognisable motifs from both cities.

“It is like a fusion of Leeds and Mexico City, there are lots of hidden details to notice and explore,” says Harrison. “It has been a beautiful cross-cultural collaboration and it’s wonderful to see how the people of Leeds are already responding to it. While we were building The Ofrenda people stopped to ask us about it on their way to work or back from school and were having conversations.”

Harrison says that one of the primary aims and functions of the artwork is to encourage people to think and talk about the difficult subjects of death and grief – which still seem taboo in British culture.

“It’s an invitation for people to create their own remembrance rituals and to free them up to think differently. When I first lost my mum I had this misconception that grief was a linear process but it isn’t, it is like the weather, always changing. We need to find ways of being in flow with our grief and learn to embrace it.” The plan is for The Ofrenda to continue to evolve as local people are invited to share a photograph or memory of a loved one which will then be added to the display.“I love the fact that it will change and grow,” says Harrison. “Each time you visit, it will be slightly different.”

At CLAY, Leeds until March 19, 2022. Free. To submit memories and photographs visit transformfestival.org.