While, as Justin Favela put it, “Cinco de Mayo sadly in North America is just an excuse to sell margaritas for five dollars,” the Las Vegas-based artist has found other ways to use commodified aspects of Mexican culture to fuel his art work, specifically the piñata. Favela is a Mexican and Guatemalan-American artist whose work is a cross between sculpture and installation that utilizes cut tissue paper—known as “papel china” in Spanish—layered in a way that resembles a piñata. He’s covered everything from the facade of a motel to a cardboard life-size model of Chevy Impala lowrider with the paper, and is gaining attention and renown for this time consuming and eye-catching technique. As we talked on the phone in late April, he diligently multitasked. “Because I can’t say no to people,” he said with a laugh. “I’m making two really big piñata banners. The hustle is real.” Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
How did you start using the piñata style in your art?
I was thinking about a sculpture I could make that represented me and my culture and the first thing that I thought about was a piñata. A piñata is automatically thought about as something used in a Mexican celebration. One of the first piñatas I made was a life-sized donkey. I’ve been making them ever since. The piñata style has become my signature. It’s something that I fought for a long time, because as a Brown artist, you kind of get cornered into making art only about your identity because that’s how the art world can understand and consume you. So I fought it for a long time because I didn’t want to be labeled as a Chicano or Latino or Brown artist. Now I see it as a way to be visible and for me to use the medium of piñata to express myself in a different way.
Tell me about your current installation at the Denver Art Museum.
The installation at the Denver art museum took me five weeks to do. I covered the walls in giant landscape paintings that are copies of José María Velasco, a 19th Century Mexican landscape painter. [At the center] I recreated the gardens from the movie “Frida,” all with piñata paper and cardboard. The installation is about these spaces that I have had to navigate where I have to be the representative of my culture because I am the token Brown person in the room. Not only is the piece about identity and nostalgia, it’s also about me navigating through the art world and showcasing my identity and the complexities of that.
Is your art political and if so, how?
Yes. I’m still figuring that out. [Laughs.] For me, the personal is political, so just being unapologetically myself and saying what I want to say and making what I want to make I feel right now is an act of resistance and can be considered political. Because of my podcast, “Latinos Who Lunch,” I’m more politically active and more in touch with my Latinidad and that’s definitely carried on to my visual art.
Is your choice to take on Frida Kahlo in your current installation an example of that?
Identity is complex and Frida is an example of that. She really played with this notion of identity as performance. White people, when they see Frida, they see an “authentic Mexican artist.” But Frida knew that was how the world saw her so she would play with that—like wearing exotic outfits and painting in her eyebrow. There are pictures of her holding these artifacts that are supposed to visually tie her to her indigenous roots but they have nothing to do with her culture—they [just] paint this picture of authenticity.
How does being queer inform your art?
Yeah, and I really don’t get the opportunity to talk about it a lot. As people of color we’re not looked at as multidimensional. [I talk about how] my work is about being Latino in America, [and they say] ‘OK stop. That’s enough. We can’t take anymore.’ My identity as a queer man, as a gay man, is complicated because I grew up in a really conservative household so I’m out, but at the same time I’m not. My family doesn’t really talk about it, so I’m in this place where I’m being respectful of my family but at the same time I’m being me. That’s very reflected in my art work in subconscious ways.
All my work is covering things up. I’m hiding things, but by putting more colorful things on top of them. It’s this aesthetic that I’m really attracted to because I’m from Las Vegas and I realize it is what Liberace did. Also Juan Gabriel [and his quote] Lo que se ve no se pregunta (What you see you don’t ask about) is very present in my work. All these suppressed feelings I can let out through my art work. It’s fun how flamboyant I can be through my work. People can read it how they want and people can see what they want to see. And I’m just attracted to gay shit. [Laughs.]
Does it bother you to see piñatas sold at Target?
The history of piñatas is long and complicated. The tradition started in Italy and Spain and then traveled to Mexico through colonization. It’s part of the evolution of piñata. Now it’s a birthday thing where before it was a really religious Catholic thing. I actually like the idea that piñatas are in Target and at Walmart. It’s showing that the Latino population has grown so much in the U.S. that it’s just become an everyday thing that you can buy at those stores. I could see it as cultural appropriation and it is, but at the same time given the history of that object, it’s fine. [Laughs.] The best thing is when [people] see a funny piñata at one of those stores, they think of me and send me images. It’s cool that I’m connected to those objects in those stores through my art work.
How has your work been received by the art world?
I think that the art world is very interesting and insular, and I’m still trying to figure out my place in it. The future is Brown and the art world is realizing that so this is the beginning of a shift where curators are no longer just White men, there are more women and more people of color curating shows. That being said, it’s still very White, so I think institutions are interested in my work because I am talking about identity. Sometimes people get nervous when I start to open my mouth. It’s something I’m battling with myself because I want to be part of the dialogue and I want to be part of that world. At the same time you have to toe the line to be part of that world so that you’re allowed to stay there. Which is hello, our life, nothing new here!
Have you encountered racism?
What I have learned the last few years is that I need to command respect as soon as I walk into an institution. It’s just this thing that I have as an immigrant—”You’re lucky to have a job”—but I don’t like the feeling of being walked over anymore. I think now that I have a little more experience, the next projects I do I’m going to go in with a better attitude and better plan. [To improve] the way that people talk about my work or physically handle [it]. A lot of times when I’m part of art shows I’m labeled as the “community artist” which is code for a lot of things. What does that mean? Instead of being labeled an installation artist or a contemporary artist, I’m labeled the community artist. These microaggressions need to stop because I want to live at least another 20 years.
What does it feel like to be creating these pieces for a majority-White museum audience?
I don’t do it for the White audience. I do it for the Brown people. Even if there are few and far between, that’s who I have in mind when I’m making the work. I have this really great memory of a school group of kids who walked into the Denver Art Museum. The White kids are like ‘Oh cool, look at all the post-its on the wall!’ And the Brown kids gave each other a look and said ‘They don’t know what they’re talking about.’ A Brown kid raised their hand and said ‘Hey, is that piñata?’ [My work is] for them because it’s not the experience that little Brown kids usually have when they walk into a museum.