A the turquoise and silver body shimmers, with color variations that suggest feathers. There are two eyes and a ruby red mouth, but no beak and no sign of wings. This whimsical bird-like creature looks like a sculpture, but it’s actually an incredibly detailed piñata – made of cardboard and paper.
Roberto Benavidez, a Mexican-American artist originally from Texas but now living in Los Angeles, said his ornate piñata artwork was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch medieval painter known for his fantastical creatures.
“I want people to see them and see a piñata. I want my work to expand the scope of what the ‘piñata’ means to people,” he explains from his studio.
Benavidez’s works are resolutely turned towards the world of art. After studying sculpture, he switched from metalworking to paper because it was cheaper and more accessible. Since then, the piñata has allowed Benavidez to explore concepts such as identity, gender, race, sexuality, beauty and sin.
“If people think of it as a piñata, then they don’t appreciate it. This is a narrative we need to change.
Pinatas are commonly found at discount stores and party stores in the United States. The colorful creations are ready to buy for children’s birthday parties, where they’ll be smashed for their sweet hidden bounty. Culturally, “piñata” conjures up the idea of a craft, something cheap, fun, and worth deleting.
It is partly for this lingering image that a growing number of Latino artists are striving to expand and elevate the way Americans view piñatas and its history. Some carve out a niche for piñatas in the art world, while others use the object to make pointed social and political commentary.
“It’s (the piñata) extremely symbolic of our culture, but here it’s been appropriated and taken on a different meaning. I want to reclaim it and elevate it in people’s minds,” Justin Favela said, expressing his frustrations over the hijacking of piñata culture.
His works are an institutional critique, emphasizing that art made from ephemeral materials has its place on gallery walls.
In the mid-2010s, Favela made headlines when he covered a Las Vegas hotel in bright pink and green crepe paper. He followed that up with two full-size car piñatas. The bright green, purple and silver lowriders have appeared in group shows in Los Angeles and Arkansas, and are among his most recognizable works.
“The car is such an American symbol, but the lowrider and the piñata are really symbols of Mexican and Latino identity,” says Favela. “I was interested in this tension and the contribution of Chicano culture in America.”
Favela has recently produced highly detailed “piñata paintings”, inspired by the 19th century landscapes of Mexican artist José María Velasco. His versions see him cutting and gluing shiny pieces of paper as a nod to the originals of Velasco’s art. The result is striking and hyper-colored paper landscapes.
For Favela, Velasco is a case study in the continuing influence of colonialism in Mexican art, and dates as far back as the 16th century: the art of the natives was considered popular art, while European works were considered fine arts. In the case of Velasco, while he was Mexican, his art was celebrated because he had been trained by an Italian master. His resulting Mexican landscapes were therefore very romantic in the European tradition.
“Mexicans have very temporary spaces to occupy in the art world. It may have to do with the materials we use, but frankly, it’s a double standard. There are Picassos on cardboard hanging in the galleries, why not piñatas? Favela said.
A complicated and rare story
Piñatas are synonymous with Mexico, but its origins lie elsewhere and have always blended into the culture of other countries and regions, said Maria Camba, a Spanish doctoral student and piñata maker herself researching the cultural and historical value of piñatas. ‘object.
Camba traveled to Mexico and discovered that the history of the piñata was barely documented. “It was a doctorate right there,” she laughs, “it’s a strange thing – there’s little literature, but we know they’re hugely popular items because of their ability to generate festivities and rites of passage.”
In ancient China, there was a tradition of putting seeds in ox-shaped clay pots and breaking them during the New Year to announce good fortune for the growing season. A common belief is that the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, brought the concept to Italy in the early Middle Ages, but Camba’s research suggests that something like piñatas were already in use in parts of Europe.
“Most of the time in Italy there were already piñata-like objects that had a kind of pagan significance,” Camba says. “In the Middle Ages, we can guess that there was a hybridization with the Chinese tradition, and it also passed from the association with paganism to Christianity. You see it in Italy, where a “pignatta” would be crushed to close the annual carnival just before Lent to let out sweet foods.
This type of piñata has crossed borders and has found a home in France, Holland, Belgium, Portugal and especially in Spain. When Spanish missionaries arrived in Latin America, they brought the tradition with them, this time covering clay pots with colored paper.
“It was used by the Spaniards early in the evangelization of Mexico, to attract worshipers among the indigenous people with something colorful and something they could understand,” says Camba. It worked because the native Mayans and Aztecs already used piñata-like objects to worship deities.
In Mexico, the piñata took the form of a spherical clay pot adorned with colored paper with seven pointed cones (representing the seven deadly sins). “It depicts Satan wearing an attractive mask (the colored paper) to cast a spell over humanity. The idea is that you break it to restore good to the world,” Camba explains.
By imposing itself in Mexican culture, it gradually loses its religious bearings to quickly extend to other celebrations and take on new forms. As it gained momentum, it became relegated to the world of pop art. Simultaneously, in Europe, the piñata declined, thanks to the Spanish Civil War and the World Wars which weakened the rituals where the piñata once took center stage.
“Piñata has this incredibly complicated history – with a very deep European tradition that is often glossed over,” says Camba.
It’s a sentiment shared by Benavidez.
“That’s why I wanted to remind people of the religious and European element of Bosch’s works. I often wonder if more people knew about this story if it would make a difference in the respect for the piñata in artistic circles,” he said.
For Diana Benavidez (no relation to Roberto Benavidez), the piñata is a way to draw people’s attention to important social and political issues affecting Latin American communities. The San Diego-based artist recently exhibited his works alongside Favela and Roberto Benavidez in an exhibition in Los Angeles celebrating piñata artists in the western United States.
“We all had something different to say,” Benavidez said, “For me, I was interested in using the piñata to provoke conversations, the tougher ones that people don’t want to have. I’m not really interested by the cliché smash at a piñata party; mine are political.
Benavidez, a Mexican-American woman, grew up along the US-Mexico border, commuting between Chula Vista, California, and Tijuana. On trips across the border, she remembers piñatas being sold by vendors jostling beside the car.
As a young adult, she began a degree in visual arts and when it came time to choose a medium, she felt drawn to the piñata after reflecting on the object’s understated yet powerful influence on her border childhood.
A recent series, Text me when you get home, is a collection in the form of objects that women wear to defend themselves in the event of an attack. It was inspired by Benevidez’s own assault that happened in broad daylight. The piñatas include a large can of pepper spray, a rape whistle, a jingle of keys, and a broken one that says, “She asked for it.”
“It’s 2022, but there’s an epidemic of violence against women in this country, especially women of color and Latina,” she says. “Little is being done, so we are doing what we can to protect ourselves.”
The series, she says, was inspired not just by her own experience, but also by the horror she says is unfolding across the continent. Indeed, in the United States, the number of missing black and latina women has increased in recent years, while gender-based violence along the Mexican border has been describe as femicide.
“It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?” Benavidez said, showing off some piñatas from the series and some new works that focus on the border crisis.
There is a disconnect between the cheerful colors, the idea that there should be treats inside and the deeper message of the work.
“We have to continue to challenge the piñata stereotype,” Benavidez said. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t smash one and have fun at a party, but if we (artists) show something, it’s that the piñata is so much more.”