Piñatas as a Form of Storytelling | Mingei International Museum

"Eventually, I realized I wanted to adopt piñatas to represent my history and identity through art."

Diana Benavidez is a bi-national artist from the San Diego/Tijuana border region who explores piñata-making as a method of expression and storytelling. She creates piñatas that reflect upon her experiences of growing up along the border, her identity, and her culture. Her work is known for introducing materials not commonly found in traditional piñatas including media, gadgets, and devices. The Museum is also fortunate to have Diana on staff as the Education Specialist, working with local schools for art-making activities and programs.

How did you get into art-making?

I suppose I've always been someone who explored creativity through art-making in unconventional ways. I grew up in Chula Vista with my grandfather between ages 7-11. He had difficulty getting rid of stuff and constantly recycled materials like bottle caps, plastic containers, popsicle sticks, etc. His living room was my playground. He always encouraged me to activate my imagination and build things out of recycled items. I didn't have traditional art supplies, but that didn't stop me from creating.

When I was around 12 years old, I was introduced to piñata-making by a family friend named Irene, who owned a candy shop back when I lived in Tijuana. She offered me a "job," and I became her helper at the shop. My duties involved cleaning up and restocking merchandise, and I remember they had a room in the back where they built piñatas, which fascinated me. They had all sorts of works in progress hanging from the ceiling and lined up against the wall. Irene became aware of my curiosity, and at some point, she guided me through the process of building piñatas. I remember being astonished to learn how much time and materials went into these ephemeral sculptures. I couldn't understand the logic behind building them to be destroyed and began to fantasize about ways to preserve them. It wasn't until I was an undergraduate student at UC San Diego that I took up this idea while questioning my interest in traditional art mediums. I've always been interested in storytelling, yet I enjoyed assembling things by hand. Eventually, I realized I wanted to adopt piñatas to represent my history and identity through art. Looking back at those childhood experiences, I can see how they shaped my artistic practice of reimagining the piñatas as a medium to communicate personal narratives.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

As an artist, I find inspiration in everyday objects and our connection to them in a cultural and social-political context. The piñata is a great way to introduce conversations about challenges experienced within the BIPOC and cross-border community. Earlier this year, I exhibited a body of work titled Text Me When You Get Home, illustrating standard practices women adopt in response to the threat of lurking predators in public spaces. Female narratives on these practices were vital in the development of the pieces. This collection of piñatas paid homage to items and garments women have learned to access as mechanisms of self-defense against sexual harassment and violence. Several of these pieces will be on view at Mingei for the exhibition Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration.

In addition to being inspired by narratives, I'm also inspired by a constant curiosity to incorporate materials not commonly found in traditional piñatas, such as media, gadgets, and devices. A popular series of work that falls into this category include my three r/c piñata cars, Vehiculos Transfronterizos, which mimic toy race cars inspired by the endless rows of traffic iconic to our cross-border landscape. These pieces are designed to be battery-operated and can be raced through remote controls. Challenging the traditional aesthetic and function of the piñatas is also a constant source of inspiration in my art practice.

What’s your process for making piñatas?

Building piñatas is a repetitive process that requires the ability to alternate between being rough and delicate. I'm impulsive when it comes to assembling my structures. I enjoy letting my creativity and imagination take over and troubleshooting while I cut, bend, and join cardboard. Allowing myself to practice trial and error in this phase feels liberating. When it comes to adding color to the piece, the energy drastically slows down. There's something about the process of trimming tissue paper into garlands that feels therapeutic. The delicate nature of tissue paper forces me to be patient and honor the material when cutting and adhering it to the sculpture. Although precision and accuracy are attractive characteristics in an art piece, I wouldn't consider my art being meticulous. I appreciate evidence of the human, and that's a visible trait in my work.

What do you hope people take away from your piñatas?

For me, our cross-border culture and the challenges experienced by the BICPOC community must continue to be represented through art as a way to unite us as a compassionate and collaborative society. I see the pinata as a container of many possibilities for play, transformation, and conversation. By adopting the piñata craft as an art practice, I work to expand ways of interaction with this ephemeral object, so the audience can appreciate small details and unlikely associations that continue to give new life to this art form.

How did you first get connected with Mingei?

My first interaction with Mingei was as a student during a museum visit. I am a huge cat lover, and when I saw the Maneki-Neko collection, I was immediately drawn to a whole different way of appreciating artifacts and crafts from around the world. Years later, I reconnected with Mingei as an artist in 2019. The Education team invited me to collaborate on two workshops during the museum's renovation. After three consecutive years of collaboration, I was fortunate to join the Education team as a staff member and featured artist in the upcoming exhibition.

Purchase a ticket today!

Explore folk art, craft, and design from across cultures and time.