VAN March/April 2015: ‘A Beautiful, Evocative Place’ by Clea van der Grijn

Bang Bang filming me learning to paint a skull for Dia de lis Muertos. copy
Bang Bang Filming Van der Grijn learning to paint a skull for Dia De Lis Muertos


Sayulita is a small coastal village of 4000 inhabiants situated in the heart of thick jungle in Bahia de Banderas, Mexico, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This is where, on 31 September 2014, I took up a 10-week residency with my family.

My aims for the residency were to explore rational, social and emotional constructs around death and loss, in order to make a body of work showing the disparities and similarities between Irish and Mexican cultural attitudes to death, focusing on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Samhain.

I’d visited Sayulita back in February and become enchanted with its graveyard – a beautiful evocative place. It nestles amongst the thick of the jungle, balancing precariously on the hilltop that leads down to the small bay, Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead). Each brightly painted grave has a candle that is lit every night.

Since the death of my brother Ruriko in 2008, I have been working extensively on the challenges and perceptions around the culture of death. I was artist in residence at the North West Hospice in Sligo ( for nearly three years and my practice to date has investigated themes of loss and death.

Coming across the graveyard in Sayulita affected me so strongly that I knew somehow I must return. When I got back to Ireland in March I looked up the Mexican Ambassador to Ireland, Carlos de Alba, and we subsequently met a number of times to discuss my project and funding possibilities. I also contacted the Irish Ambassador to Mexico, Sonja Hyland. She too was interested in my work and informed me that Ireland and Mexico were celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relationships and that there could be funding for a cultural project such as mine.

De Alba and Hyland nominated me for an AMEXID scholarship, which would cover flights and provide a stipend to cover costs.¹ The Irish Embassy also offered to host a solo show in an established gallery in Mexico City to coincide with Dia de los Muertos 2015. Flights to Mexico for myself and my family proved to be very expensive, but my rationale was that the AMEXID scholarship would contribute greatly.

Still of little girl at grave wearing irish victorian dress Sayulia 2014 copy
Clea Van Der Grijn, Sayulia at a grave wearing irish victorian dress, film still, 2014

In May 2014 Catherine Marshall opened my exhibition ‘ambivalence (conflict)’, which ran at Ballina Arts Centre 5 – 31 April. I gave a 25-minute interview to RTE’s The Works about the show. In the same month I attended the Get Together and met Sarah Ryder, Commissioner for Arts / Factual at RTE. Ryder expressed an interest in sending a film crew to Mexico with me. This was followed by a 40- minute interview which was aired by Sky191.

Over the next few months I completed applications for the AMEXID residency and Arts Council Project Award. For AMEXID, applicants must name a host, so I nominated the Irish Embassy in Mexico. I also sent a huge amount of supporting material, which the Mexican embassy kindly translated into Spanish. Prior to travelling I booked a house with a studio in Sayulita, as an arts centre or residential studio couldn’t facilitate my young family. This cost a fortune, but I remained confident that with the backing of two embassies and the commitment from RTE, I would be fine.

Shortly afterwards I got some upsetting news: the time frame was too short for RTE to gather funds and send their film crew to Mexico. However, they wanted to support the project in whatever way they could and got independent production company Bang Bang Teo interested in the project. I met with them and we agreed that they would follow me to Mexico if we could raise some money between us.

Encouragingly, Bang Bang Teo started filming me straight away. They came to my studio and home in Sligo and spent many hours interviewing me. They also followed me to the foundry in Dublin where I made a ‘death mask’ for the Mexican ambassador. I personally raised €5000, which only touched on their expenses and equipment, but we were all in so deep that the only way was forward.

There were a few more glitches. I was informed that embassies do not qualify as ‘hosts’ for residencies. The Director of AMEXCID, Juan Valle Perena, told me that I needed to be hosted by an institution. I tried to explain that I needed to be located in the village of Sayulita – and not in an institutional context – in order to work closely with the community. A compromise was finally made: if I found a valid cultural host who would monitor my work on an ongoing basis then that would suffice. I emailed every museum and director near Sayulita explaining my project and eventually Pilar Perez, Director of Culturales Centro de Arte Puerto Vallerta, agreed to be my host.

Grave. Sayulita Mexico copy
Grave in Saya Ulita Mexico, photo by Clea Van der Grijn

In September I was informed that AMEXID could not give me a residential scholarship in support of my project, as I would not be ‘resident’ at their facility, the Cultural Centro de Arte. It seemed rather unfair. Perhaps residential scholarships are only for childless artists or those who are willing to leave their children behind for three months? Do art institutions think that artists won’t get any work done if their family is with them? It seems that few long-term residencies are tailored for artists with families.

My partner, Martin and our boys Maximillian and Orlando arrived in Sayulita on 31 September, after more than 24 hours of travel. It was dark, hot and humid. Our house was in the jungle, less than 100 meters from the warm soupy sea and white sands. The air, along with everything else, was wet, and there was a cacophony of sea, surf, jungle life and bird sounds. My studio was on the first floor, smaller than my studio in Sligo, but with glass doors that opened onto a balcony and a window that looked straight out onto banana and coconut trees. And there was Wi-Fi.

My initial task was to gain the trust of as many locals as possible, so that they wouldn’t feel inhibited when the film crew arrived. I set myself the goal of rising at 5.30 to film the sky at the jungle graveyard turning from pitch black to morning light. I also filmed at night, when the candles were lit and the afternoon sun faded to evening light and then to pitch black again, with the constant twinkling of the candles.

I became familiar with the gravestones and family names and also I got to know the various family members who brought me to the graves of their loved ones and shared their stories. Through this process my ideas became multifaceted. My focus shifted from direct representations of death, in an objective abstract sculptural format, to a more subjective understanding. This became especially clear after I learned about a tradition called Dia de los Santos Inocentes, where the souls of dead children are recognised.

Through film and photography, I re-imagined the return of a dead child revisiting her grave. This fictionalised Mexican child developed as a catalyst to inform me, in some ways, as a projected image of myself, and created many questions concerning childhood, identity, selfhood and loss. What began as an objective observation of Day of the Dead traditions developed into something much more complex.

Bang Bang arrived three weeks after our arrival. At this that stage I was settled into a routine of early morning filming, yoga, green juices, beach walks, hard work and early nights. I had begun filming a young local girl at a graveside, who was to become central to my project. Bang Bang followed me around night and day for two weeks while I interviewed locals and participated in graveyard activities.

I worked in the studio for four or five hours each day while the boys were in school, but the nightly monsoon rains, humidity and intense heat made everything a little bit difficult. Paper would curl and slide off the damp walls and the boys struggled with schoolwork.

We travelled to different villages and towns as I investigated the build up to Day of the Dead. Men and women young and old told me their stories around the celebration. They sang and laughed and there were tears. I was humbled by the honesty and generosity of all these wonderful people who allowed me share in their private celebrations.

Family celebrating their dead loved ones - Dia de los Muertos 2014 copy
Family celebrating their dead loved ones, Dia De Los Muertos 2014, photo by Clea Van der Grijn

Midway through the residency, Maximillian and I got Dengue fever. We were very sick and I began to lose heart. Orlando also got perforated eardrums from spending too much time in the sea and, with a month still to go, was told not to swim any more. We decided that a week of rest and a break from the jungle was necessary. So we visited museums and old towns, churches and galleries in the area. We stayed in beautiful colonial buildings and saw the most extraordinary architecture in Puerta Vallerta, Guadalajara, Compostella, Tequilla and El Tuito. We drove the back roads through sleepy villages and volcanic mountains and got drunk on Raicillia (moonshine) at a hacienda in the mountains. And of course we went to every graveyard along the way. Revitalised, with the film crew gone and three weeks left, I worked day and night making sure, without doubt, that I had done all I could to explore the Mexican perspective on death.

Following our return in December, big boxes of artwork, including dozens of skulls, antique water bowls (to give water to the dead after their long journey home to visit their living family) and other artifacts, arrived back home in Sligo completely broken. Customs had opened the shipment and not repacked it. Initially I was heartbroken, but my spirits were lifted by an invitation to show at the Luan Gallery, Athlone in 2015 and a major touring solo show for 2016, initiated by the Model, Sligo.²

Megan Johnston, Director of the Model, suggested that I use the next 12 months to critically reflect, edit and further develop my ideas, creating a carefully contextualised set of plans and a poignant new body of work. I’m currently going through all my film / photographic work and notebooks, deciding what I am going to ship to Mexico City for my show in October 2015. Will it be photographic prints or will I send a whole installation? Will my film be edited in time? I have to seriously think these issues through. The Department of Foreign Affairs are covering all the shipment expenses, but I still need confirmation on budgets before I start casting works. I have spent so much money to date and, realistically, without funding I’d be unable to continue with the project. The Luan show will include work from ‘ambivalence’ and possibly a new work, if there is a budget to do so.

At the time of writing Bang Bang are due to return to film some more and the pre-production footage from Mexico has been sent to RTE. I’ve been looking over the work I made in Sayulita and realising that I have done so much more than I could have imagined. All of this is encouraging and I’ve reapplied for an Arts Council Bursary in the hope of getting support to carefully contextualising the material this year.

My life is my art. Despite facing financial restrictions and hurdles, having to school my children all over the world, dragging them from culture to culture, nothing will stop me.

Clea van der Grijn
1. The Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation:
2. Clea van der Grijn is also co-curating ‘Liminal Spaces’, which will run at the Model, Sligo (August – September 2015) and features invited artists Maurice O’Connell, Corban Walker, Felicity Clear, Michele Horrigan, Fergal Mc Cabe alongside her own work

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this. You can review our Privacy Policy under the menu above: About VAI > VAI Privacy Statement