Visual Art

An Artist Is Starting a Dialogue About Gentrification with Piñata-Inspired Real Estate Signs

Last year, Giovanni Valderas started making art that mimicked real estate signs using traditional piñata techniques. After months of painstaking work, he decided to apply for a public art grant aimed at revitalizing downtown Houston. He submitted his new works to be considered for a 40 x 60 foot image on a skyscraper during Super Bowl weekend next year. One — bearing the message, “No hay pedo,” which means “no problem” — was accepted. But alas, there was a problem.

“I didn’t think I was going to get anywhere with it,” Valderas admits. But then he received a congratulatory call from someone who probably didn’t speak Spanish. The following week, he received another call: “Hey Giovanni, what did you say that message meant? It’s not what you say it means. It means, 'there’s no fart.'”

“That’s what the literal translation means,” Valderas says, chuckling. “But it’s an idiom.” Even though Valderas is Hispanic and would never do anything to disrespect his culture, there were some concerns. After a long series of email exchanges, they decided to use his other proposal with the words “Ay te miro,” meaning “I’ll see you later.”

“It’s also a potent message,” Valderas says. “The literal translation means ‘I see you,’ like I know what you’re doing, I’m watching.” And with a new solo show — Valderas’ first in Dallas since 2013 — opening at The MAC this weekend, “No hay pedo” did not go to waste. It is one of eight pieces featured that marry real estate signs and piñatas in this way.

Recently known as curator at Kirk Hopper Fine Art and for his work as a Vice Chair of the Cultural Affairs Commission, Valderas displayed the first three works for this series in Oak Cliff back in February.

“Sitting on the commission really just gave me this insight to civic engagement,” Valderas says. “As a contemporary artist I started thinking about that.” He decided to bypass the gallery system and put his artwork out in the community, guerrilla style, setting it next to real real estate signs to see if a dialogue developed.

He put the art in areas where he grew up, places he still drives by every day. He enjoyed watching people stare at it while sitting at stop lights during rush hour. He wasn’t sure if they recognized it as art, but wanted to start a conversation about the rapid gentrification of Oak Cliff. As his work deteriorated in the weather over a few weeks, it made him think of memories eroding.

But one of the works stayed up for a long time. The frame is actually still on display, but the face fell out and laid on an empty lot for weeks. Valderas eventually decided to rescue it, putting it on the roof of his car and then mounting it on a stretcher. He decided to add it to the show because it was so different from the other pieces, like a black sheep decomposing.

“I’ve seen all these old apartment buildings being torn down,” Valderas says. “These are places where I used to run around.” When the huge real estate signs began going up, he recognized them as forerunners of an approaching truth, almost like flags being planted by colonizers.

Valderas has always been interested in the history of piñatas. In Mesoamerica, they were originally part of an Aztec ceremony to celebrate the birthday of the god Huitzilopochtli. But the Spanish then brought their tradition of breaking a container filled with treats to an area north of Mexico City. This was a way to not only mix in with indigenous culture, but also influence it, which eventually gutted piñatas of religious meaning.

“Piñatas were used as a vehicle to communicate a message and change things,” Valderas says. Hundreds of years later, piñatas are now identified as festive, and he liked the idea of using piñatas to start a dialogue. “For me it’s open-ended.” He does not see a solution for gentrification, but also understands that adapting to change is nothing new to Hispanic people.

This is why phrases like “No hay pedo” ended up on his piñata real estate signs. It’s slang, but also very authentic. It directly communicates with the Hispanic community, and the bright colors are hopeful.

“These commercial real estate signs project a message of power and influence,” Valderas says. He created artwork that does the same thing, and when the two are juxtaposed, they relay messages about each other to the community. One is crafted and domestic, the other manufactured and foreign; one is festive and tactile, the other sterile and dry.

Giovanni Valderas: Forged Utopia opens at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 4, at The MAC (1601 S. Ervay St.) and runs through June 25.  
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Jeremy Hallock

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