Piñatas—hollow sculptures of paper or clay meant to be broken open—are known to contain surprises; Roberto Benavidez’s hold layers of cultural and personal associations. The Los Angeles–based artist repurposes this Mexican folk craft to explore his multifaceted identity as a gay Mexican-American man raised Catholic in rural Texas.
Versions of the piñata, believed to have originated in China, exist around the globe. They may depict animals, gods, political figures, or storybook characters. Benavidez’s piñatas, whose major themes are race, sexuality, and religion, merge Mexican and European symbolism. “My work serves a bit as a bridge between cultures,” he says.
More elaborate than many commercially-made piñatas, Benavidez’s paper sculptures are not intended to be smashed. Along with the more usual stripes and blocks of bright color, his piñatas feature gradations of metallic and colored papers and achieve a more painterly effect. Instead of straight-cut paper fringes, he often makes fringes with a feathered cut that’s easier to shape around three-dimensional forms. And he has experimented with more durable materials, including acid-free paperboard, a pH-balanced white PVA glue, and thick, high-quality crepe papers from Italy—a country with its own piñata, the pignatta.
In 2013 Benavidez began a “Piñatas of Earthly Delights” series based on Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–1515), with its images of fantastical animals and birds. For Bosch Bird No. 1, he started with balloons, newspaper, cereal-box paperboard, wheat paste, crepe and metallic streamers, wooden dowels, and Elmer’s glue. He covered balloons with a papier-maché of newspaper and wheat paste to make the body and head, then cut and folded paperboard for the neck and legs. “The beak is a wooden dowel covered in paperboard,” he says, “and paperboard was used to create the star at the end of the beak.”
Like Bosch’s work, this piñata addresses the idea of sin. European missionaries, Benavidez explains, used star piñatas as tools of Christian conversion, adapting Mesoamerican traditions that involved breaking a clay pot. The star “represented the seven deadly sins, the blindfold [was] faith, and the treats were your reward for that faith.” Growing up Catholic and gay, “The concept of sin was ever-present. I never have been a believer but [that] religious conditioning predisposes my brain to commentary.”
Benavidez has also based piñatas on the Luttrell Psalter, a medieval illuminated manuscript that, like Bosch’s paintings, features fantastical hybrid species. For Benavidez, these imaginary animals serve as the embodiment of complex identities. He is currently working on a series of sculptures of birds titled “Halfbreed,” in which he combines different species’ plumage to create new hybrids. “I recently made [a mix] between a scarlet ibis and a glossy ibis. Those not familiar with the birds would have no clue and think it is just a pretty piñata. But those who know, will know.”
“All my birds are gay,” says Benavidez. A current series, “Birdr,” features same-sex couplings or groupings. “Most birds are sexually dimorphic, meaning the male and female have different colored plumage,” he notes. In Courting Cardinal Sin, two bright-red male cardinals share berries.
One of the artist’s goals is to uplift the piñata as an art form. In addition to his sculptures, Benavidez used to produce piñatas meant to be broken, but he found making them commercially wasn’t economically feasible. He learned early on that people balked at paying more than $50 or $100 for a large custom piñata, even for a special event like a wedding and despite the creativity, skill, and labor involved. “I can’t help but think this is in part due to attitudes about Mexican culture here in the U.S.,” he says. “The expectation is that Mexican goods, labor, food, and crafts are cheap or inexpensive. My hope is that as the piñata is appreciated in the fine art world, the value will translate to the commercial world and allow piñateros to make a living wage from what they do.”