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The Nikigator Returns to the Mingei International Museum

Read the story behind one of San Diego's most photographed animals

By Jeanette Giovanniello



The only thing sweeter than a fond farewell is a long-awaited reunion. Mingei International Museum’s beloved Nikigator sculpture has come home after a two-year residence at Liberty Station. It’s just one small step closer to the Mingei’s highly anticipated reopening, but according to Rob Sidner, the museum’s CEO and director, the Nikigator is worthy of a spotlight all its own.

This colorful reptile was created by French American artist Niki de Saint Phalle in 2000. While working on over 15 mosaic animal sculptures for the Noah’s Ark installation in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Saint Phalle had the sculptures temporarily placed outside the Mingei.

They were an immediate hit, and Sidner says that once they were shipped to Israel, Mingei founder Martha Longenecker realized a piece of the museum had left with it. So she got back in touch with Saint Phalle, who was a close friend and former roommate, to commission another creature to live outside the Mingei’s doors permanently—the Nikigator.

The large ceramic monument weighs 5,000 pounds and is covered with a mixture of mirrors, glass, stones, and mosaic tiles that draw  inspiration from Gaudí’s Park Güell. Saint Phalle and her team traveled to Santa Monica, Tucson, Kentucky, and Guadalajara, Mexico, to find the right tumble stones and marbles for the spirited gator. While green and red gems make up the most prominent colors, you can see a whole array of colorful stones upon a closer look.

But the sculpture is best observed not by looking, but touching. A common theme in Saint Phalle’s work is its accessibility for art admirers of all ages.

“It was Niki’s idea that kids would learn from the pieces and face their fears,” Sidner says. “Kids are both attracted to monsters and a little afraid of them. By playing with them, they could manage their fears.”

The Mingei’s purchase of Nikigator came from initial funding provided by the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Program, which helped make the piece safe for children to climb. And though it’ll still be a couple more months before the Mingei reopens, we can’t wait to get our hands on its most whimsical resident once more.

Mingei International Museum

1439 El Prado, Balboa Park


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