Rafa Esparza's exhibition transforms MASS MoCA's white walls into a 'brown-scape'

Esparza’s exhibition staring at the sun at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art takes on the past and contextualises the present through paintings and installations.

by Georgina Maddox Published on : Feb 24, 2020

Mexican artist Rafa Esparza, in his recent work, captures the humiliating moment where Mexican migrant workers and immigrants were made to stand in a queue, naked, with their clothes in hand as they were sprayed with DTT, an insecticide that was banned 16 years later in the United States. This iconic moment of a ritual that was less a ‘tool of protection’ and more of humiliation, was also captured by photographer Leonard Nadal in the 1950s. In fact, a book by David Dorado Romo featuring Nadal’s images has also been published. It documents what came to be known as the Bath Riots, when a 17-year-old Mexican maid refused to take a gasoline bath and convinced 30 other trolley passengers in 1917 to do the same.

A 2019 painting by Rafa Esparza shows Mexican immigrant labourers being sprayed with insecticide at a border processing centre | Staring at the Sun | Rafa Esparza | STIRworld
A 2019 painting by Rafa Esparza shows Mexican immigrant labourers being sprayed with insecticide at a border processing centre Image Credit: Kaelan Burkett, courtesy of MASS MoCA

Esparza evokes this image of the men being sprayed, which was an important moment of transference in history, through the paintings that were recently featured alongside other artworks at his year-long solo exhibition staring at the sun. The exhibition began in January 19, 2019 and concluded on January 8, 2020, at the MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art).

Esparza also recalled how he used the labour-intensive process of hand-making adobe bricks, a skill that he learned from his father. His father Ramón made adobe bricks in Mexico to sell, and to build his first home, and the Los-Angeles-based Esparza used the same technique in 2014 to make approximately 1,400 adobe bricks to cover the surface of Michael Parker’s sculpture, The Unfinished. Through this project the artist examined his relationship to land, the Los Angeles River, and his family with whom he collaborated. For staring at the sun, he created a new space out of the adobe bricks and ‘returned’ to his practice as a painter, thus ‘browning’ its typical white walls.

Rafa Esparza’s ...we are the mountain, 2019 | Staring at the sun | Rafa Esparza | STIRworld
Rafa Esparza’s ...we are the mountain, 2019 Image Credit: Kaelan Burkett, courtesy of MASS MoCA

Esparza explores adobe as both material and politics, creating what he has termed ‘brown architecture’: “My interest in browning the white cube — by building with adobe bricks, making brown bodies present — is a response to entering traditional art spaces and not seeing myself reflected. This has been the case not just physically, in terms of the whiteness of those spaces, but also in terms of the histories of art they uphold,” Esparza was quoted saying in an interview to ArtForum in November 2017.

Within art institutions, Esparza creates adobe spaces that also function as platforms for collaboration for many constituencies and communities, including queer brown artists. Traditionally made by hand with dirt and other organic material such as clay, horse dung, hay, and water, adobe is among the earliest of human building materials.

Rafa Esparza, Hector and Jose Polio as Hero Twins: Hunahpu and Xbalanque, 2019 | Staring at the sun | Rafa Esparza | STIRworld
Rafa Esparza, Hector and Jose Polio as Hero Twins: Hunahpu and Xbalanque, 2019 Image Credit: Kaelan Burkett, courtesy of MASS MoCA

Best known as a performance artist, Esparza began his career in visual arts as a painter. However, he was unable to fully relate to the ‘old master’ paintings and drawings that he studied as an undergraduate, and instead turned to performance, making art with his body among the landscapes of Los Angeles.

Staring at the Sun allows Esparza to design a brown space and to simultaneously engage, create images, and build narratives intrinsic to his use of land — brown matter — as context, surface, and content,” says MASS MoCA in a press statement. The exhibition’s curator, Marco Antonio Flores, says, “Portraiture creates a legacy. The interesting thing is that for him to create portraits out of material that breaks and cracks, you think, what does that tell us about portraiture?”

Rafa Esparza, Tierra Rara: Sancha. No Soy de Aquí, Ni Soy de Allá, 2019
|Staring at the sun | Rafa Esparza | STIRworld
Rafa Esparza, Tierra Rara: Sancha. No Soy de Aquí, Ni Soy de Allá, 2019 Image Credit: Kaelan Burkett, courtesy of MASS MoCA

Woven into Esparza’s body of work are his interests in history, personal narratives, and kinship. He is inspired by his own relationship with colonisation and the disrupted genealogies that it produces. 

This exhibition included a series of new paintings on the surface of adobe, which features portraiture, landscape, and abstraction. Adobe prepared by Esparza and his team, covered the pristine white walls of one of MASS MoCA’s ‘white cube’ gallery spaces, serving as a threshold into an earthly dwelling. Entering the gallery, visitors will be immersed in dirt. Notes Esparza, “I want to overwhelm you with earth.”

The artist painting for his exhibition, staring at the sun, 2019 | 
|Staring at the sun | Rafa Esparza | STIRworld
The artist painting for his exhibition, staring at the sun, 2019 Image Credit: Kaelan Burkett, courtesy of MASS MoCA

Esparza’s recent projects have evolved through experimental collaborative projects grounded in labouring with land vis-à-vis adobe brickmaking. Not only are his paintings and installations stirring and alternative to the academic styles promoted by most art institutes in the West, he also engaged in collaboration with MASS MoCA staff, with the North Adams community, and Williams College students and held a brick making workshop at the institute as well.  The idea was to bring past and present, and outline issues of the immigrant and colonizer in direct conversation with each other. 

Esparza is a recipient of Emerging Artist Grant from Rema Hort Mann Foundation (2015), California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Arts (2014), and Art Matters Foundation (2014).

Rafa Esparza working on staring at the sun, 2019 | Staring at the sun | Rafa Esparza | STIRworld
Rafa Esparza working on staring at the sun, 2019 Image Credit: Kaelan Burkett, courtesy of MASS MoCA

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About Author

Georgina Maddox

Georgina Maddox

Maddox is an independent critic-curator with 18-years-experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She blurs the lines of documentation, theory and praxis by involving herself in visual art projects. Besides writing on immersive art for STIR World, she is a regular contributor for The Hindu and Architectural Digest.

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