Love Letter to Roberto Benavidez

A beast, adorned with bright blue, pink and silver scales, stands upright with its front legs crossed behind its back, its tail flared behind it like obedient coat tails and its tusks curved skyward, glimmering gold. Its ears are pointed and eyes set forward.
Roberto Benavidez, Javelina Girl (Illuminated Piñata No. 14), 2019. Paperboard, paper, crepe paper, glue and wire. 42 x 28 x 12 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist

Pity the piñatas, which are born on death row. The papier-mâché and crepe creations first gained a foothold in Mexican cultural tradition during the sixteenth century, when they served as a Catholic representation of sin. Since then, piñatas have acknowledged that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. When the time comes, they bleed sweetly and without protest. 

For these long-suffering sculptures, Roberto Benavidez’s workshop is a sanctuary. Unlike their Party City brethren, Benavidez’s intricate piñata renditions of real and imagined flora and fauna are intended to stick around for the long haul. Influenced by ideas of religion, sexuality and race, his sculptures are rendered with such adroitness they’re barely recognizable as piñatas at all. Or perhaps they’re what piñatas would grow up to be if we humans would just leave them alone.

Trawling the internet a few years ago, I was enthralled by images of the piñata series for which Benavidez is best known: a three-dimensional reimagining of beasts from Hieronymus Bosch’s sixteenth-century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Thousands of painstakingly layered, gleaming paper pieces comprise the fins, fur and feathers of fantastical creatures, which, in a reversal of the piñata’s typical fate, appear on the cusp of life instead of death. Instinctively, I wondered what they might contain, the way a lion might fantasize about an antelope. Most piñatas know they are intact only by our mercy. Benavidez’s works, however, with all their otherworldly drama, seem so conscious that their fate seems entirely up to them. Through luminous eyes, his piñatas leer at us, knowing their secrets are theirs alone. 

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Author: Jennifer Gersten

Jennifer Gersten is a violinist and writer from Queens, NY. Winner of the 2018 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism, awarded by the country’s leading music critics for “outstanding promise” in the field, Jennifer has contributed journalism, essays, and reviews to Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Guernica and The Kenyon Review. She is pursuing a doctorate in violin performance in Stony Brook University.