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At Mingei, a new exhibit is bursting with culture

"Agarrate Papa" (2020) by Francisco Palomares
(Courtesy of the artist)

A new exhibition at the Mingei celebrates the piñata as both a traditional and contemporary art form

A few years ago, Emily Zaiden noticed something unique about piñatas. As the director of the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles, she already had a deep appreciation for the art form and the piñateros who make them. Still, she says the piñata stood out to her from other traditional forms of crafts and not just on a visual level.

“There are very few forms of handmade art that are part of a wide spectrum of people’s lives,” Zaiden says. “Piñatas are cross-cultural as a tradition at this point. And it’s a living tradition, a longstanding tradition and one that is constantly reinvented.”

She also noticed that there hadn’t been that many exhibitions devoted to showcasing piñatas as both a traditional craft as well as a contemporary art form. She helped curate “Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration,” which opened in 2021 at the Craft in America Center. A little over a year later, a highly expanded version of the exhibition will open at the Mingei International Museum on Oct. 28.

“That was really the entire goal: to show the entire spectrum of what artists and makers are doing with piñatas,” Zaiden says.

"Text Me When You Get Home: Keys" (2022) by Diana Benavidez
(Courtesy of Mingei International Museum)

Emily Hanna agrees with this assessment. The “Piñatas” exhibition will be Hanna’s second exhibition she’s overseen at Mingei since being hired as the museum’s Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator earlier this year. Many of the staff at the Mingei had seen the Craft in America iteration of the show and suggested to Hanna that it might be worth doing something similar at the recently reopened Balboa Park institution.

“It has come up as a possibility of something we could really blow out and expand since we have a much larger space,” Hanna recalls.

“I’ve done a lot of research in different parts of the world and what fascinates me is this transition from a craft tradition that may have belonged to another time, but contemporary makers take it in a completely new direction,” Hanna continues. “They move it beyond simply functional and infuse it with meaning, context and the politics of the day.”

The more than 80 works that will be on display at the Mingei run the gamut of what is possible in the medium. Yes, there are more traditional piñatas and even ones that were made using techniques that date back centuries, but there are also bold, contemporary and untraditional pieces that challenge the idea of what a piñata, exactly, is supposed to be.

“The way that some of the artists use the form as commentary, with some of the pieces being very political in a lot of ways,” Zaiden says. “They’re raising awareness on a lot of issues in our society about identity.”

"Text Me When You Get Home: Shoes" (2022) by Diana Benavidez
(Courtesy of Mingei International Museum)

One of those artists exploring commentary via the medium is local artist Diana Benavídez, who constructs intricate and sometimes even automated piñatas that speak to contemporary issues. Her recent solo exhibition at the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights, “Text Me When You Get Home,” explored the dangers women face in society via the objects that make them feel safer. Piñatas of rape-whistles and brass knuckles were included in the show, as were more cerebral type pieces like a 16-feet long rendering of rosary beads, which will be included at the Mingei exhibition.

“My topics can be very controversial in comparison to a lot of other piñata artists displaying work,” says Benavídez, who grew up in Chula Vista and crafts all of her piñatas inside her studio apartment in University Heights. She feels the medium may help viewers be more receptive to the issues she’s trying to address.

“You might not know what it says or what it’s about, but you’re attracted to it,” says Benavídez, who has hosted piñata workshops for the Mingei in the past and now works as an education specialist at the museum. “That’s when conversations start to unfold. It helps convey a narrative that isn’t so much in-your-face, but still inspires dialogue.”

Benavídez also speaks to one of the more underlying themes of the Mingei exhibition. That yes, piñatas can and should be considered a serious form of contemporary art, but also one that can inspire viewers in ways beyond the traditional feelings of festiveness and childhood innocence.

“It’s very nice to see larger institutions are recognizing this art form that has been undervalued for a long time,” Benavídez says.

The Mingei exhibition will still contextualize this history and features installations that showcase how piñatas, both in the craft and the experience, differ depending on region. Still, the main attractions of “Piñatas” will be hard to miss: A 17-foot lowrider car piñata. Benavídez’s Giant rosary beads complete with a crucifix. A border wall complete with a silver strand on top meant to resemble barbed wire. Hundreds of butterflies and hummingbirds suspended from the ceiling that viewers will be able to walk through.

The latter two installations will be from Isaías D. Rodriguez, known on social media as “the Little Piñata Maker.” The L.A.-raised, Fresno-based artist got his start making miniature piñatas on a whim nearly 20 years ago but soon found that people began to ask him to make custom ones for their home and cars.

“It’s funny because piñatas are supposed to be created to be destroyed and here I am, flipping the script, saying, ‘Don’t destroy these. Keep these and admire them,’ ” says Rodriguez, who is one of two artists creating new work specifically for the Mingei exhibition. “In that action, I hope that people can translate that to other aspects of their lives. What can we preserve that we can look to as a visual cue? When I look at my little piñatas I think of childhood memories. I think of fantasy and fun.”

Everyone agrees that “fun” will still be the operative word at “Piñatas.”

“Everyone has a piñata story. Everyone can relate to a show like this on a very personal level,” Zaiden says. “Hopefully they’ll think about their own memories when they’re experiencing this show.”

In addition to the exhibition, which runs through April 20, 2023, there will also be maker-style workshops and events where patrons will be able to craft a 5-foot burro piñata or learn to create their own. There will also be panels and guided tours with some of the artists.

“I think that’s part of our overall mission, to inspire people to think of themselves as makers and to have the courage to try and to have fun while they’re trying,” Hanna says.

She’s quick to point out, however, that there are no plans for smashing any of the piñatas featured in the exhibition.

“But you know what? There’s still the idea of smashing something to get to what’s inside. It’s just not candy, it’s ideas,” Hanna says. “Originally, in places like China, they would crack the clay ones open and seeds would come out, so there’s always been that side of it — to crack something to get something out. And even though these ones aren’t meant to be broken, they’re still full of something that’s breaking through.”

‘Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration’

When: Opens Oct. 28. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Exhibition runs through April 30, 2023.

Where: Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park.

Admission: Free-$14

Phone: (619) 239-0003

Online: mingei.org

Combs is a freelance writer.

"COVID Vaccine" (2021) by Lisbeth Palacios
(Courtesy of Madison Metro, “Craft in America”)


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