The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
An insistent rootedness in the histories, land, and life of Los Angeles can be felt in rafa esparza’s performances, installations, and paintings, which are all focused on his brown, queer community. His works open the possibility of sharing resources and destabilize artistic authority, and they put the spotlight on brown Americans of Mexican, Central, and South American origin or descent, predominantly queer folks, living in a city whose artists and longtime inhabitants are fighting erasure and gentrification.
In 2014, during a Clockshop Gallery residency, in a former L.A. railyard known as the Bowtie, esparza and his father, Ramón Esparza, created and dried 1,500 adobe bricks. They did so in part in homage to the graffiti artists whose work had been removed six years earlier from a nearby riverbank, as part of the Los Angeles Graffiti Abatement Program. The Esparzas created a structure called Con/Safos, and invited painters and graffiti writers to adorn it. Its handmade adobe bricks, mixed by father and son from clay-rich dirt, animal dung, and Los Angeles River water, reflect the durable, functional form prevalent across Mexico and its former lands in the Southwest. For the artist and his father, making the bricks alludes to their community’s history—and is a way of bringing artists together or solving the rifts of intergenerational emotional distance and misunderstanding.
The adobe bricks showed up again at the 2016 edition of the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial and, later, the 2017 Whitney Biennial. What could have been a solo presentation wound up as a group show of sorts, featuring stacked volcanic rocks by Beatriz Cortez, a golden mural on the adobe’s irregular surface by Eamon Ore-Giron, a faux-archaeological artifact by Gala Porras-Kim, and large-scale portraits of Mexicans going about their everyday lives by Dorian Ulises López Macías. Esparza sees collaboration as an essential part of a practice centered around community.
This is more than just a way of diverting institutional resources and bringing attention to other artists. For esparza, the work also acknowledges the wide range of contemporary brown/Mexican-American/immigrant or indigenous experiences. Many of esparza’s body-based performances grow from the ongoing trauma resulting from colonialism, displacement, and systemic racism. In 2013, working with Sebastian Hernández in a performance called chino, indio, negro, he alluded to the trauma of the 1871 mass lynching of Chinese immigrants on an L.A. street then known as Calle de los Negros by having firecrackers hurled at his plaster-covered face.
Esparza’s most ambitious project to date, a two-part performance called bust: indestructible columns, debuted this past fall. The first part, staged in Washington, D.C., had the artist chiseling his way out of an Ionic column, crafted with artist Timo Fahler, in front of the White House. The column referred to the fortifications of white supremacy in America’s capital, with esparza struggling against the containment that is violently real for thousands of adults, children, and toddlers in U.S. detention camps and centers. After the performance, esparza and numerous collaborators hopped on a plane to New York; two days later, they stood before the same, now partly destroyed column, at Performance Space New York. As part of the evening’s symposium and communal dinner, esparza read “Brown Cloud,” written by organizer and writer Patrisse Cullors, and dedicated to the community that esparza described as “we that know diaspora, we that know colonization, we that know migration.”