In Mingei, the new exhibition is filled with culture
A few years ago, Emily Seiden noticed something unique about piñatas. As director of the Craft Center of America in Los Angeles, she already had a deep appreciation for the art form and the piñateras that make it. However, she says that the piñata stood out to her among other traditional types of crafts and not just visually.
“There are very few forms of hand-made art that are part of a broad spectrum of people’s lives,” says Zaiden. “The piñata is a cross-cultural tradition at this point. And this is a living tradition, a long-standing tradition that is constantly being reinvented.”
She also noticed that there weren’t many exhibitions dedicated to showcasing piñatas as both a traditional craft and a modern art form. She helped curate Piñata: The High Art of Celebration, which opened in 2021 at the Craft in America Center. A little more than a year later, on October 28, a greatly expanded version of the exhibition will open at the Minghe International Museum.
“That was really the whole goal: to show the full spectrum of what artists and creators are doing with piñatas,” says Zaiden.
Emily Hanna agrees with that assessment. The Piñatas exhibition will be Hanna’s second exhibition to curate at Mingei after being hired as the museum’s Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator earlier this year. Many of the Mingei staff had seen the Craft in America iteration and suggested to Hanna that perhaps something similar should be done at the newly opened Balboa Park facility.
“It came up as an opportunity for something that we could really expand and expand on because we have a much larger space,” Hanna recalls.
“I’ve done a lot of research in different parts of the world and I’m fascinated by this transition from a craft tradition that may have belonged to another time, but today’s craftsmen are taking it in a completely different direction,” Hannah continues. “They take it beyond the merely functional and imbue it with meaning, context and the politics of the day.”
The more than 80 works to be exhibited at Mingei reflect the spectrum of what is possible in the medium. Yes, there are more traditional piñatas and even those that have been made using techniques that date back centuries, but there are also bold, modern and unconventional creations that challenge the idea of what exactly a piñata should be.
“The way some artists use form as commentary, and some of the pieces are very political in a lot of ways,” Zaiden says. “They raise awareness about many issues of identity in our society.”
One such artist who explores commentary through mediums is local artist Diana Benavides, who creates intricate and sometimes even automated piñatas that reflect on contemporary issues. Her a recent solo exhibition at the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights, “Text Me When You Get Home” explored the dangers women face in society through objects that make them feel safer. Piñatas of canola whistles and brass knuckles were included in the show, as were more clever creations, such as a 16-foot-tall rosary display that will be featured in the Mingey exhibit.
“My themes can be very controversial compared to a lot of other piñata artists who show work,” says Benavidez, who grew up in Chula Vista and creates all of her piñatas in her studio apartment in University Heights. She believes that the media can help viewers be more receptive to the issues she is trying to address.
“Maybe you don’t know what it says or what it’s about, but you’re drawn to it,” says Benavidez, who has taught piñata workshops for Mingay in the past and now works as an education specialist at the museum. “That’s when the conversations begin. It helps convey a narrative that’s not so in-your-face, but still inspires dialogue.”
Benavides also talks about one of the main themes of the Mingey exhibition. Yes, piñatas can and should be considered a serious form of modern art, but also one that can inspire viewers not only with traditional feelings of festivity and childish innocence.
“It’s great to see larger institutions recognizing this long-underappreciated art form,” Benavides says.
Mingei’s exhibition will continue to contextualize this history and features installations that demonstrate how the piñata varies in both craft and experience depending on the region. However, Piñata’s main attraction will be hard to miss: a 17-foot lowrider piñata. Giant Benavidez rosaries complete with crucifix. The border wall with the silver thread at the top was meant to resemble barbed wire. Hundreds of butterflies and hummingbirds are suspended from the ceiling for viewers to walk through.
The last two installations will be created by Isaias D. Rodriguez, known on social media as “The Little Piñata Maker.” The artist, who grew up in Los Angeles and lives in Fresno, started creating miniature piñatas on a whim nearly 20 years ago, but soon found people asking him to make custom piñatas for their homes and cars.
“It’s funny because piñatas are meant to be destroyed, and here I am, flipping the script, saying, ‘Don’t destroy them.’ Keep them and admire them,” says Rodríguez, one of two artists creating new works specifically for the Mingei exhibition. “With this campaign, I hope that people will be able to transfer it to other aspects of their lives. What can we save, what can we see as a visual signal? When I look at my little piñatas, I remember my childhood. I think about fantasy and fun.”
Everyone agrees that “fun” will continue to be the key word in Piñata.
“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 watch this show.”
In addition to the exhibition, which runs until April 20, 2023, there will also be workshops and artisan-style events where visitors can create a 5-foot donkey piñata or learn how to create their own. There will also be panels and tours with some of the artists.
“I think it’s part of our overall mission to inspire people to think of themselves as makers and to have the courage to try and have fun while they’re trying,” says Hannah.
However, she was quick to point out that none of the piñatas on display are planned to be broken.
“But you know what? There’s still the idea of breaking something to get to what’s inside. It’s just not candy, but ideas,” says Anna. “Originally, in places like China, they would break the clay layers and the seeds would come out, so there was always that side of cracking something to get something. And although these are not meant to be broken, they are still full of something that breaks through.’
“Piñata: The High Art of Celebration”
If: It will open on October 28. Saturday through Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Thursday and Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The exhibition runs until April 30, 2023.
where: Mingea International Museum, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park.
Reception: Free – $14
Phone: (619) 239-0003
Combs is a freelance writer.