LOS ANGELES — Last Sunday afternoon, a few dozen visitors dressed in black gathered around a burial plot in Hollywood Forever, the storied cemetery that occupies 60 acres in the middle of East Hollywood, abutting the Paramount Pictures Studio. They had not assembled to mourn a death, however, but to celebrate a birth: the launch of Grave Gallery, a new art space founded by artist Nao Bustamante.

Guests spent a half hour catching up with friends and wandering amongst the headstones before Bustamante emerged from a thicket of trees and walked slowly towards the crowd. She wore an oversized black costume that added several inches to her height, a gold eye mask, and a bucket on her head, which she periodically banged with a wooden spoon. She carried a spirit trumpet, a megaphone-shaped object used during Victorian seances to communicate with the dead.

“You shouldn’t be here! You don’t belong here! Be gone!” she bellowed into the instrument, though it was unclear if she was offering release to the spirits or warning the assembled living of the sacred ground they stood on. As she rejoined the group, she instructed them to pour out some of the champagne in their cups for “someone in the next life,” and she began to tear up as she did the same. Then, with a comically oversized pair of scissors, she cut a ribbon, officially inaugurating Grave Gallery.

Karen Lofgren, “Restoration Action Piece”(2022) with props from Bustamante’s performance at Grave Gallery

“I’ve been thinking about death since I was small, probably eight or something,” Bustamante told Hyperallergic. She has created several works dealing with mortality, including a “living” deathbed portrait, a performative conjuring of the spirits of underground filmmaker Jack Smith and his muse Maria Montez, and a seance to hold the so-called “Father of Gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims, accountable for his experiments on enslaved Black women.

But Bustamante still hadn’t dealt with the practical realities of her own inevitable demise, or “gotten her affairs in order,” as she puts it. So at the end of last year, she purchased a 3-by-7-foot plot in a bucolic section of Hollywood Forever, right next to the resting place of famed LA painter Ed Moses, who died in 2018. From a list of potential creative ideas for the site, “art gallery” seemed to encompass the most possibilities. Bustamante reached out to Track 16 Gallery to help guide her first foray into running an art space.

Karen Lofgren performing “Restoration Action Piece” (2022) at Coaxial (photo by Amina Cruz)

Themes of community and collaboration were evident in Grave Gallery’s first exhibition, which paired Bustamante’s performance with a sculpture by Karen Lofgren. The grey fiberglass, cement, and wax object resemble a tombstone, except for two deep gouges that Lofgren covered with gold leaf. Titled “Restoration Action Piece,” she originally made it for a performance as part of influential performance artist Ron Athey’s residency at Coaxial last year, and she cast the gouges from Athey’s knees as he knelt. As scholar, critic, and curator Jennifer Doyle noted in her post-performance talk, the voids in the object act as an invitation for us to participate as well. To extend the threads further, Athey’s residency was titled Our Lady of the Spasm in honor of a theatrical work Athey produced with the late Nacho Nava, a beloved figure in LA’s queer nightlife community, who passed away in 2019.

Bustamante builds on traditions like the Mexican Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) that blend reverence for those passed with a celebration of their lives, a concept she grew up with when she visited her family cemetery as a child. Fittingly, Hollywood Forever hosts a popular Day of the Dead event, in which families set up elaborate altars honoring their loved ones, that draws throngs of visitors every year. It also connects to histories of funerary sculpture, ranging from simple headstones to relief portraits and elaborate tombs, all of which are featured at Hollywood Forever.

Bustamante also sees a synergy between the cemetery as a site of community, and themes of collaboration in her own practice.

“I’ve really gotten into table tombs because I really love the idea of people sitting around the table … as a tombstone,” she says.

“I’ve been thinking about death since I was small,” Nao Bustamante said. (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

As guests gathered at the site, David Padilla walked around with the sign featuring a QR code that linked to a map where participants could drop a pin to the gravesites of deceased artists in Hollywood Forever, creating a virtual network of memorials. Several notable entertainers, musicians, and artists are interred a short walk from Grave Gallery including Judy Garland, Holly Woodlawn, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Cecil B. DeMille, Hattie McDaniel and Mickey Rooney. Amongst the celebrities are everyday Angelenos, and a short walk down any path will include Armenian, Russian, Jewish, Spanish, and Anglo names, some laid to rest a century ago, some last year.

“All of LA is built on a cemetery and all of LA is in this cemetery,” curator and writer Anuradha Vikram told Hyperallergic. “It’s the perfect place for this work.”

Bustamante has a list of ideas for other projects for the site, including a garden, film screenings, augmented reality, a performance stage, even a hot tub. “If I live til I’m 90 and have three shows a year, I could have 90 shows,” she says. “90 at 90. That would be kind of poetic.”

David Padilla at Grave Gallery (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)
Jennifer Doyle’s talk at Grave Gallery (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.