I have long had an interest in the Mexican folk art, and in particular the nichos / shadow boxes, produced for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival. Although the festival and the associated art and craft may appear morbid to some I’ve always understood them as a celebration of life rather than a dwelling on death, and as a humorous nod to the inevitability of death – it’s gonna happen so let’s not waste our time fretting about it. Many nichos I’ve come across include dancing skeletons, making music, falling in love – what’s not to like!

So, when an important birthday approached in April, and I was a bit stuck for a gift idea, I decided to construct a Mexican nichos-inspired diorama / mixed media assemblage as a gift. The recipient is also a fan of Dia de los Muertos folk art, a dedicated lover of music (sometimes, but not necessarily, of the diabolical kind), and has a burgeoning collection of skull related artworks (by the likes of Femke HiemstraWilliam SchaffHuck Gee, Banksy, Brian Morris et al)… so a music-themed skully nichos it had to be.

I had originally thought I’d make the musician figures myself, but soon realised that if I wanted them to have an authentically Mexican feel I’d be better off finding figures made by a Mexican craftsperson… someone who knows what they’re doing! Luckily there’s a shop in Amsterdam that caters to all one’s Mexican folk arts ‘n crafts needs (details of said wonderful shop included below). I was able to hand pick my mariachi band from their great collection of Dia de los Muertos figures – two Spanish guitarists, a trumpeter, a violinist, and both a male and a female vocalist. This was going to be some party!

mariachi band

My Mariachi band needed a hellfire and brimstone set on which to play their diabolical tunes. I wanted to create a kind of cavernous, fiery underworld while still keeping it colourful and densely patterned like the Mexican nichos are. I also wanted an excuse to include plenty of cut paper – I love the papercutting process but don’t do enough of it, so needing layers and layers of flames gave me plenty of opportunity to immerse myself in the process.

flame cutting

flame cutting

devilish skull drawing

devilish skull drawing

watercolour and gouache background painting

watercolour and gouache background painting

putting the layers together

putting the layers together

layered

layered

and the final assemblage

and the final assemblage

I had so much fun constructing this thing and have plans to make more shadow boxes, less overtly (or not at all) Dia de los Muertos-themed but incorporating the techniques I learnt while making this one. The possibilities are endless!

Should you have a hankering to make your own shadow box then these are the materials you’ll need:

  • a box frame – I used Ikea’s 23x23cm Ribba, which is about 4.5cm deep. I think it would be better to work with a deeper box frame, so if you’re good with wood you could custom-make your own!
  • scalpel with swivel blade – I find the swivelling blade makes it easier to cut fluid shapes, but any sharp blade would do.
  • A variety of papers – I used Daler Rowney‘s smooth Canford papers (150gsm) in a range of fiery hues for the flames, and slightly textured Canson pastel papers for the background painting and foreground papercuts. The furthest layer of flames is a translucent orange paper (brand unknown) allowing the background painting to show through and increasing the sense of depth.
  • Drawing and/or painting materials – I used water-soluble pencil crayons, watercolour and gouache for the background image.
  • Spray glue, and possibly a glue pen if fiddly, pin-point sticking is required (this is one of the best I’ve used… and I’m not just saying that because of its name :)
    Although the layers of flames are stuck one on top of the other I left the upper parts of their ‘tongues’ glue-free and loose, to increase a sense of depth and movement as the light changes and shadows shift. 
  • Things/objects (figures, or whatever takes your fancy) to put inside the box.

The shop mentioned above is Santa Jet, Prinsenstraat 7, Amsterdam. Their website is currently ‘under construction’ but here’s the URL anyway: http://www.santajet.com/ (in case a more detailed website makes an appearance in the future). And here’s a pic of the shop’s colourful interior. I’d highly recommend a visit to Santa Jet if you’re passing through Amsterdam.