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All That Lives: Ellie Harrison reflects on collaboration between continents

As dusk falls we wander the streets with the smell of freshly baked spiced bread wafting through the air and bunches of marigolds on every corner as the children of Tultepec in Mexico prepare for their annual Lantern parade. There is a brass band and the excited chatter of children who finished school early, their faces painted wearing costumes and holding homemade lanterns or buying them from street vendors. There is celebration in the air. And the celebration is for Day of the Dead.

Two little girls recite a carefully rehearsed speech into a microphone so their tiny voices can be heard across the town square. “This is for all the dead children. We have made them an Ofrenda (shrine) and because we are children, we understand what they want. We have covered our Ofrenda in sweets, toys and musical instruments”. The little girls take their responsibilities seriously. I’m struck by the way the serious and the celebratory is fused here. Life and death hand in hand. And I’m struck by how these celebrations would have helped all the grieving young people I have worked with over the years….and in fact how the celebrations would have helped me when I lost my parents at a young age.

Our research visit was made possible with the help of Leeds 2023. We have been researching Mexican Culture and Day of the Dead. We’ve been talking to artists and communities. A 9 year old girl called Frida with all the charisma of Frida Kahlo and a good deal of the direct rebelliousness cornered me to ‘help with my research’. “You say, in the UK that people are afraid to talk with children about death but it’s important that we know and are a part of the community, not excluded from the ritual”. The trip has prompted us to think about how we might re-imagine our rituals around death and remembrance in Leeds? What if instead of a minutes silence, we got the family together, dug out old recipes that have been handed down, told funny stories of those we have loved and lost over food and drink? What if instead of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ of grieving we built Ofrenda shrines with photographs of loved ones with offerings of flowers, food and significant objects? I might add lucky charms breakfast cereal to remember my brother or a map of the Scottish Island where my father grew up.

We are bringing a team of artists from Mexico to work with us in Leeds to see what happens when these two cultures meet. What new traditions might we invent? We invite you to join us. Pop in for a cuppa to say hello, bring a photo of a loved one to add to the Ofrenda shrine, eat with us, have a cheeky glass of Mezcal and laugh until you cry. This is a space where it’s all allowed and we can celebrate those we have loved and lost. This is the first step on the journey to creating a Day of the Dead Celebration for the people of Leeds. Join us to shape what the celebration might look like, might sound like as we connect artists and communities from Leeds and Mexico. 

Artists from Leeds and Mexico City will be working collaboratively with communities to remember those we have loved and lost, from heroes like David Bowie to legends like your Nan.

Here’s how to get involved:

Ofrenda Building in Bradford 1st – 3rd May 12-18:00. For location and activities see Theatre in the Mill Website 12:00- 18:00. FREE.

Ofrenda Building and Installation at Merrion Centre, Merrion Way, Leeds LS2 8NG 6 – 11 May (closed on the 8th), 10:00 – 18:00. FREE.

All That Lives, Feasts: a Mexican meal part of Leeds International Festival 10 May



Ellie Harrison is an critically acclaimed artist who has spent the past ten years on her award winning body of work The Grief Series.

Image: All That Lives, Lizzie Coombes