This article was published on April 25, 2020


The architect and National Architecture Prize winner César Portela (Pontevedra, 1937) and María Camba, who was part of his team and is now responsible for the project 'Piñatas y carnaval. Los hilos de la memoria' (Piñatas and Carnival. The Threads of Memory), at MUSAC in León, talk to us here about the party, collective happiness, transgression. We need it. During this very special meeting that we bring together in 'El Asombrario', María and César claim, in these times of social isolation due to the pandemic, experiences that could help to organise a new common sense dedicated to defending life. From reviewing the practices and ways of working in culture, to the attachment to doing and thinking chorally or the importance of the popular in the preservation of the natural environment.

This proposal for contemporary creation has been launched through the MUSAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León) programme of aid for the creation and dissemination of culture, the Convocatoria Laboratorio 987, and is co-produced by Astorga City Council. The initiative included two phases: on the one hand, the author's research into the origin of the popular piñata game; on the other hand, the creation of the great piñata that closes the unique Astorga carnival, a celebration known as Piñata.

CÉSAR PORTELA: How to begin, María... I have reviewed your project and the proposal transports me, I am moved by memories of travels and stays outside Galicia. Specifically, the images of the piñata that you have made took me to two situations in Mexico that my memory keeps. On the one hand, its markets, those places where you would take all the things, because of their beauty, but you don't do it, because you wouldn't have anywhere to put them. And secondly, the person of Luis Barragán - in the midst of our friendship - we both found incalculable values in craftsmanship as an expression of people, as objects available to anyone, as materials that - unlike what is made industrially - are unique.

MARÍA CAMBA: The work that is passed on from person to person is very valuable to me, because it comes from the heart. As for me, I've been running the studio Más que Piñatas for five years now; I wanted to find out how far I could go with my hands, a cutter and a pair of scissors. From the beginning, I realised that piñatas were undervalued and that their history had not been recorded. The history of this object and its millenary ritual was going to be lost. So I set out to do the research. I decided to travel to Mexico, thinking that I could find records there, as that is where they are most deeply rooted today. And indeed, in Mexico City I visited the Gilardi House of the architect Luis Barragán; I remember its mythical yellow corridor with different elements such as those three mirrored spheres, which are very old and come from some peasants in Chiapas.

In that sense, I would like to think that some of his concerns are also found in my practice. Of course, Piñatas y carnaval. Los hilos de la memoria wants to vindicate one of the slogans promoted by the Mexican architect, which is the need to open a dialogue between crafts and art, that is to say, to create other lights between the figure of the artist as a creator of realities and the quality of craftsmanship to unite space and time. When you talk about the places to which this project takes you, I would like to point out that I also discovered something, and that is the capacity of craft to travel; displacement is implicit in its heart, since by being passed down from generation to generation, crafts allow us to walk between people's lives. You just have to let the objects speak.

CÉSAR PORTELA: Yes, yes, yes, yes, of course! Add that Luis Barragán used to say that his architecture had no value, that its value was given by the salt. For him, the salt of architecture was colour. I don't think we give colour the importance it deserves today. I think that colour, very much influenced by Barragán or by my father, who was a draughtsman and painter, but above all by Barragán, I give it as much importance in architecture as distribution, because it also has an effect on it or on space...

MARÍA CAMBA: So much grey, so much white, so much black... When you go into works you've done such as the Finisterre Traffic Light or the Museum of the Sea, there is colour. That is something I always recognise in your architecture.

CÉSAR PORTELA: In the atmosphere of the Museum of the Sea there has to be colour in some way... The place is almost like a transition from dry land to the sea - through the museum - and then there you start to see a little of those blues... But for the artisans it's something that comes out on its own... I find it difficult. It's something very... Trying to put rationality aside and let yourself flow towards sensitivity and colour. In craftsmanship it comes naturally, for example the sailors when they paint their houses or their boats amaze you. You go to a port and you see the colours of their boats and you marvel at them, and they didn't learn that from any artist, or any architect, or any naval engineer.
And then another inclination, another touch that reaffirms for me the importance of colour are the pigments: from the Andalusian stuccoes to the houses in Morocco or the colours of the costumes in Niger. Pigments are an amazing thing. I just put a handful of this pigment on a table and it brightens up my food.

MARÍA CAMBA: Sometimes we forget how much academicism and erudition condition us. If only we would let what comes from inside us come out more often... Craftsmanship is one of the most sustainable things that exists: local context, environmentally friendly materials... Although one problem that you point out, and that I have found in developing this project, is the distance that is sometimes perceived between contemporary creation and people, and how frictions between the popular and the contemporary can be bridged in the development of a project.

CÉSAR PORTELA: Of course, of course, it's true. You see that also here in Pontevedra, María. I don't think we have sufficiently valued or integrated the popular into our outlook. There it is... Now I'm thinking about popular architecture. Walking around Galicia, all the houses that are more than 50 or 60 years old, I don't think you would change the location of any of them, because they are where they have to be... Everything. And they are also at the point where the land either doesn't produce or it's a stony area. Everything is in its place. I think that also, look, I think that having time gives you time. I think it's very important, because it allows you to think. And thinking allows you to reach other kinds of visions, to make other decisions, I mean. I think that, if you walk through those homes I was telling you about, through popular architecture, it's difficult to go into any house and there's nothing left over. There is nothing left over. I would also say that your work doesn't lack or lack anything?

MARÍA CAMBA: I think that a key experience that has helped me now in this project is getting to know the territory with you and how you listen to the people. That respect and knowing how to listen to the territory you come to in order to do something is something I have tried to apply. In the end, when you do something, it has to be done with respect for the people in front of you and the local context, but also with care in the timing because, in the end, it is the human aspect that should be more present in the work.

In my case, I have been working for a year with the Mediation Group of the Call for Proposals Lab 987 to shape the proposal. Alongside the research, it was important for me to make a piñata. It could have been presented on the esplanade of MUSAC, but we wanted to go a step further. And we have managed to cooperate with people where the tradition is still alive; this is the case of Astorga. I was also able to do this thanks to its inhabitants. I made the piñata for their carnival, a celebration that receives the name of Piñata for keeping the tradition of the popular game alive.

But, of course, I didn't want to land there as a parachutist, let's say, and I first asked the cultural associations of the municipality, until we found Julián Velasco, the person who recovered the tradition after the dictatorship. He connected us with the people who defend the tradition today. They trusted in the project. And listening to them and establishing a common roadmap together does not mean resignation, condescension, loss of authorship, brand or creativity. With mutual respect, one can do what one wants to do. For my part, I proposed to hold previous workshops on banners and masks, to share learnings, to make prototypes of the work and to connect with people from the municipality. Many of them were allies in the subsequent celebration. Among these accomplices, it is worth mentioning the choreography performed by the street theatre group, A ras de suelo, who every year, on Piñata Sunday, turn the Plaza Mayor of Astorga into a big stage to share a common experience. And the 2020 edition was no exception.

As far as the piñata is concerned, in addition to paper and cardboard, I used wool from the Val de San Lorenzo, the wool of the region in which this project takes place, the Maragatería, to create it. In turn, the ritual of the piñata can be read as a popular representation of the Big Bang. Explosion, change and creation are constellations in this celebration. With it, the old time is buried, the transition from winter to spring takes place. Thinking from this point of view, what the piñatas bring us is destruction as transformation. Among the references I have handled around destruction, I wanted to highlight Los Panero to ask myself what happens to the traditional family; the film Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo to delve into how social networks and technologies - as a model of prosperity - can end up subjugating and isolating people. And Goya's Aquelarre, in which the figure of the goat - the patriarchy, if you like - is presented through a character characteristic of archaic carnivals.

On another note, I think there are things that mark you in childhood, that stay inside you and then come out. [Like a piñata when it breaks]. In my case, when I was a child, I used to go to Verín, in Galicia, to see my grandparents, I remember their carnivals very clearly. It's something that stays with you. It's there. And, to close with two important references, the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint and her pyramid... or Damselfrau (Magnhild Kennedy) [Norwegian artist living in London famous for his masks] are inspirations that today broaden that memory of my childhood.

CÉSAR PORTELA: You prepared a big queimada with your references. The times bring that... Many times you learn as much in a carpentry shop as in the studio. My father used to say to me: watch out, listen to this person, you'll learn more by listening to that stonemason. And, surely, then the craftsman seems to work alone, but the grandson, the neighbour or the other one or the one further away helps him. Life is much more choral, more collective... It's like the fiestas. At the bonfires of San Juan, for example, people would go looking for branches from trees that had fallen, they would prune them, they would make them together. I remember that on carnival days in Pontevedra, in all the towns, it was easy to see how people had as much fun at the carnival dance as they did making their costumes. The murgas in Cádiz didn't cost anyone anything, apart from what they drank, because the rest was just walking through the streets... A fiesta is above all the possibility of transgressing anything.

MARÍA CAMBA: Thanks to this project I have rediscovered the pleasure of working with my hands. During my years as an architect I worked with autocad and, suddenly, when you create an object with your own hands, you are skipping many intermediate steps; it is a maximum enjoyment. In Astorga, it is very curious, it is the latest carnival in the calendar, it is celebrated the weekend after Ash Wednesday, and not the weekend before as usual. Among the festivities, it is worth highlighting its multitudinous and joyful parade, as well as being one of the few places that maintains the popular game of the piñata, a celebration that ends with the burning of the object, instead of its usual breaking; this is how they welcome the spring. Next year the tradition will be 40 years old. With the burning of the piñata that we did, the most beautiful thing for me was the feeling of a common experience, of gathering around the fire. Also, since fire has such an ancestral connotation... A moment of sharing happiness, even if it is brief. That has a great value for me! I am provoking a moment of joy in others. This justifies the whole project.

CÉSAR PORTELA: If people would discover the enjoyment that exists in doing for oneself..., every community celebration begins there. I'm convinced that people who leave the countryside often do so to eat, but many other times it's because they don't have that illusion and that attachment to tradition, which is also what sometimes compensates you for being in a place. Celebrations and their rituals have a meaning, they serve to satisfy the longings that people have. Look, now I'm becoming a princess, now I'm becoming I don't know what... It's very nice.

MARÍA CAMBA: Right now, the part that interests me most about working with the piñatas is to learn more about the ritual. Already in the 12th century piñatas were used in medieval Europe, it seems incredible to me that it could almost totally disappear in our country. The turning point here was the Civil War and the dictatorship. The last Sunday of Carnival, to this day, is still called Domingo de Piñata in many municipalities. The name has prevailed, which shows that there was a great tradition. And the worst thing is the geopolitics of the object and its ritual. It has come back - imported from the United States - as a tacky birthday treat. Or like Halloween. Perhaps our generation can no longer understand it, but Carnival was the festival of changing time and roles, the beggar becomes the rich, the devout becomes the unbeliever, the military man decides to become a lion tamer... The rules are diluted. It is a total communal catharsis. Now, when we thought we had so much freedom, perhaps we are not aware of the meaning of carnivals, of their possibilities.

CÉSAR PORTELA: Yes, yes, and above all that this is also the product of a society that is stewing in consumption. Nowadays it's easier to go and buy three costumes. Now, when we talk about parties and celebrations, the translation is how much money the people who attend are going to spend. All this comes to mind because it's true. It's just that people didn't need a lot of merchandise, they made it for themselves. Now all that company that produces thousands and thousands of kilos of clothes has to sell them, in a way, there is a declared - or hidden - war against life. What this society produces is profit. I used to wear my grandfather's corduroy trousers, which had been worn by my uncle, my father and then me. Now it's impossible, impossible because they have to break, because next year they will continue to be made and they have to continue to sell.

MARÍA CAMBA: Yes, profit. When having fun is something very serious, that's obvious. Cultural manifestations are essential to understand the evolution of human beliefs and values. A good party means togetherness, sharing, expansion of consciousness. Going back to this taking care of the times, and to close this meeting, another experience that I really liked when I was in Pontevedra working with you is the slower times of your architecture, this respect for the territory, for taking care, taking care of mother Earth, that's what we have. I remember the first time we went to Finisterre to develop the Master Plan for Cape Fisterra, I remember when you explained to me with indignation - it was very moving to hear you - that they had made a rubbish dump at the Mirador del Centolo, one of the most incredible landscapes I have ever seen.

CÉSAR PORTELA: Yes, yes, yes, yes, I went there several times with my children. It was terrible. In the most beautiful place, that dump... How is that possible? And as time goes by, it always motivates me to think about when we did the Finisterre Plan to put an end to that thing. How mentally degraded are we to be able to do that? Who could have thought of that? Happiness is not having a current account in the bank to be able to consume; happiness could be having the possibility of fulfilling yourself as a person. 

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