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Rafa Esparza

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Rafa Esparza
Born1981 or 1982 (age 41–42)
Alma materUCLA School of Arts and Architecture
Known forPerformance Art
Notable workStaring at the Sun, de la Calle

Rafael Esparza (born in 1981) is an American performance artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.[1] His work includes performances affecting his physical well-being and installations constructed from adobe bricks. Esparza often works with collaborators, including members of his family.[2][3][4][5]

Esparza's work has been shown at multiple private and public locations, such as parks, sidewalks, nightclubs, and museums. Rafael Esparza's artistic practice delves into themes of heritage, identity, and endurance. He frequently incorporates elements of fashion, which he uses to explore the body, as well as his Mexican-American background, showcasing a deep connection to his cultural roots. His performances, which sometimes involve physically demanding tasks or ritualistic actions, invite audiences to contemplate the boundaries of art and the human experience. Esparza's adobe brick installations, a nod to traditional construction methods, serve as both artistic creations and symbols of resilience. Through his diverse body of work, Esparza challenges conventional artistic norms and prompts viewers to engage with thought-provoking concepts in unconventional settings.

Early life and education[edit]

Esparza was born and raised in Pasadena, California, and is the son of Mexican immigrants from Durango, Mexico.[1][6][7] His father, Ramón Esparza, worked in construction for over 30 years and used to make adobe bricks back in Mexico.[7] Later on, his father taught him how to make adobe bricks to reconcile their relationship after Esparza came out as queer.[1][3][7]

Esparza grew up interested in art but realized that his art was not very relatable to the old master type of art that has been presented and critically acclaimed throughout history.[8] As he attended East Los Angeles College during his early twenties, he began to focus on performance art.[1] The Latino art collective Asco introduced Esparza to performance art and building installations.[1] His interest in performance art was further solidified when he attended UCLA, where he marked the campus with different art pieces.[1][7] In 2011 he graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in fine arts.[1]

Work and career[edit]

Close-up view of "Sitting in Chrome" exhibition, 2023

Esparza's work is heavily influenced by politically charged topics such as ethnicity, gender studies, and the environment.[1] Esparza has claimed that he is influenced by the relationships between his ethnicities and society. He uses aspects of materiality, memory, and (non)documentation as primary tools to question and critique ideologies that have been set and remain today by past generations that may be outdated.[9] This influence reflects in his works as they sometimes tackle topics surrounding Chicano and queer histories like colonization, male sexuality, freedom, home, and family.[1][3] Oftentimes, Esparza dives deeper into his ideologies and attempts to critique social and racial issues within mainstream art by using his art as a way of "browning the white cube", and embodying the trials and tribulations of an immigrant's life that have helped push past the narratives of traditional art spaces.[10] Esparza's projects typically involve collaboration around local labor and land and are done with the intent of a deeper spiritual connection.[11]

Esparza's Staring at the Sun was a solo exhibition at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, where he covered the white gallery space with adobe bricks and featured a series of new paintings on the surface of the adobe, which included portraiture, landscape, and abstraction.[11] Esparza's intent behind this presentation was to represent his people, not only by coloring the white space within the museum with bwon adobe bricks but also by representing the multiple immigrants that came to America due to the Bracero Program. It was an effort to redefine the unfair prejudice clouded over Hispanics, expressing that they do not need any fumigation, such as the adobe bricks that decay. He also wanted to create a narrative on the importance of land.[11] In 2013, Esparza performed chino, indio, negro with Sebastian Hernandez at Perform Chinatown 2013.[4] chino, indio, negro was performed near the site of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in response to that event.[4] Esparza performed El Hoyo with his brother, Beto Esparza, and fellow artist Nick Duran that same year.[4] El Hoyo was performed at Human Resources and reflected Esparza's identity as a queer, working-class son of immigrants.[4]

Esparza performed in Dorian Wood's "O" video.[12] In August 2013, Esparza and Wood performed "CONFUSION IS SEX #3" at the Sepulveda Wildlife Basin. The piece was the third installment of a performance art series organized by Dawn Kasper, Oscar Santos, and Dino Dinco.[4] The Sepulveda Wildlife Basin, the location of "CONFUSION IS SEX #3," has been used as a homeless encampment and a location for gay men to cruise for sex. In 2012, part of it was bulldozed by the US Corps of Army Engineers.[4]

For his participation in the 2016 Made in L.A. Biennial at the Hammer Museum, Esparza created "Tierra," a field of adobe bricks from Los Angeles' dirt. The artist's sculptures and objects were buried and unearthed in Elysian Park, a historical site of early Latinx communities' displacement.[13][14][15][11]

Esparza also collaborated with artist Cassils on Independence Day 2020 to create "In Plain Sight," which was an artwork that supported the abolition of mass immigrant detention, incarnation, and the unfair prejudice that was displayed for immigrants, especially across the border. The project was deliberately planned to be broken down into 5 parts. The first was the sky typing fleets that displayed messages over governmental institutions and facilities such as detention facilities, immigration courts, borders, and other sites of historic relevance. The steps that followed this display of art were "an interactive website, an anthology docuseries, accessible actions for the public to take to join the movement against immigrant detention, and cultural partnerships producing arts-related education and engagement."[16]

Esparza was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial.[17] For the exhibition, he created "Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field,"; a gallery made of adobe bricks inside the museum.[18] The adobe room, made with dirt from Los Angeles River, was used as an exhibition space by other LA-based Latino artists Esparza invited to participate.[19] In 2018, Esparza's collaborative exhibition and performance event de la calle was his first solo museum presentation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.[20] Esparza used the museum's gallery for exhibition, production, and collaboration, where selected local artists and nightlife personalities worked collaboratively to produce works to display at the museum and for performance.[20] The performance, de la calle, took place in the Fashion district of downtown Los Angeles Santee Alley.[21] Esparza, other artists, and queer nightlife personalities were involved in the construction of various garments, which ranged from a translucent rainbow dress to an orange hoodie with mechanical puppies strung around the neckline.[22]

From January 20 - March 3, 2018, at the Commonwealth and Council Gallery, Rafa Esparza, in collaboration with Beatriz Cortez and other artists, had an exhibition named Pasado mañana- meaning Spanish “the day after tomorrow.” This exhibition features artwork based on the foundation of immigrant labor that is used to create a future among subjects such as race, class, and culture to become possible.[23][24]

On September 21, 2019, Esparza held a performance in Washington named the Indestructible Columns. It was held on the south side of the White House on the 52-acre park, Ellipse. He was wearing a black blazer, a possible reference to the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries.[25] He encased himself in a concrete cylinder from the waist down, made by Timo Fahler, and spent two hours chipping away at the concrete to free himself. Esparza said that this was his way of deconstructing the supporting systems that have upheld the inhumane white supremacist ideologies. Esparza did this performance to make a statement about the 45th president separating families at the border in intolerable conditions. [26] In 2018/2019 Trump began implementing different travel bans and heavy restrictions on existing immigration policies. All of these contributed to the separation of families at the border due to rapid deportation and the consistent denial of entry into the US.[27]

In 2020, Rafa Esparza collaborated with Eamon Ore-Giron and Gala Porras-Kim for the Art Basel 2020; their exhibition was also featured at Commonwealth and Council Gallery. This exhibition featured Esparza’s paintings that were created on Adobe- his artwork was dedicated to confronting white supremacy through the history of colonial violence. While also connecting to the indigenous people of the Americas and their connection to the land. Esparza created a painting of his older brother that showed him in a nostalgic rendition of a pre-Instagram photograph.[28] Esparza has also created painted works on adobe that evoke the fantasies and real-world experiences of the Latinx queer community.[29][30] November 30, 2022, for Miami Beach Art Basel L.A Times Image Magazine, Commonwealth and Council art gallery collaborated with rafa esparza on his performance of "Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser”[31] . The performance consisted of an out of commission repurposed 25 cent mechanical ride that was transformed into a cyborg lowrider cruiser. People that were given a ticket to ride the listened to a recording of esparza recounting a story of creating CorpoRanfLA and the passage of time. This piece was one of the few that was not for sale at Art Basel, It was for performance only. Fellow riders included L.A. artists Gabriela Ruiz, Karla Canseco, Victor Barragán, and Rosales, all of whom had helped bring the piece together.[32]

This exhibition builds upon a previous performance he had done in collaboration with Mario Ayala, Tanya Melendez, Paul Marcus Rodriguez and Fabian Guerrero titled "Corpo ranfla, 2018". For that performance esparza was spray painted fuchsia pink, detailed with roses, and various portraits to resemble the infamous lowrider Gypsy Rose. Esparza’s 2018 performance was an ode to the intersexuality of queer lowrider culture that he experienced. He used his body to display himself as a kind of human lowrider, welcoming sexualization by typically hyper-masculine men. Alongside him on stage were Fabian Guerrero as his photographer and Sebastian Hernandez acting as the model displaying the lowrider. They wanted to take back the feeling of not being welcomed in these car shows due to the toxic environment. [33] In lowrider culture they take the paint jobs of their cars very seriously, thinking of it as its own artform and beauty. [34] Esparza paid homage to this by recreating his favorite car at the time, Gypsy Rose. This exhibition explored the public gay cruising sites that intersected with public lowrider cruising sites. This performance expressed the different connotations of the word "cruising". The performance started at Elysian Park in Los Angeles where many car enthusiasts cruise with their lowriders, but also many gay men cruise for sexual encounters. This location was the perfect intersection for both worlds. To end this performance esparza performed a dance alongside Sebastián Hernández at the Mayan Theater.[35] Both of these performances focus on how there is lacking feminine and queer expression in this hyper-masculine space.[36]

The 2022 revision of the original Corpo ranfLA (2018) includes a cyborg component that subverts the traditional narrative of the mechanical aiding the human. He demonstrates how technology can aid human efforts to plan seeds for the future. He is also interested in conveying the history of anthropomorphism, which is prevalent in Indigenous communities. The practice of performance art effectively allows him to map out the complex relationships between people and things.[37] The lack of feminine and queer expression in this hyper-masculine space is the focus of both these performances, as well as the photoshoot accompanying the feature piece about Corpo ranfLA in the Los Angeles Times. This shoot, documented by Estevan Oriol, features esparza wearing an outfit designed by Bárbara Sánchez-Kane. In her signature sculptural and subversive manner, Sanchez-Kane designed a metal cyborgian piece of armor for one of esparza's hands, along with a white billowing dress. esparza's collaborators, including Guadalupe Rosales and Karla Ekatherine Canseco, are also in Sanchez-Kane pieces.[38]

Use of style[edit]

Along with the way he dresses the body in Indestructible Columns and both renditions of Corpo ranfLA, Esparza embraces fashion and style as a fundamental element in his practice. He believes that fashion is the manifestation of a plethora of religious, sexual, and racial identities and narratives. Esparza and his collaborators intend to give a voice to those marginalized historically and in today's society. His fashion performance in 2018, De la Calle, merges the personal with the public by meshing streetwear with elegance.[39] esparza speaks to the role of adornment and fashion within the wider queer community. He explains how fashion functions as a way of expressing one's identity in a heteronormative world, and queer expression emerges even in the vibrant colors of low rider cars.[40]

Public art collections[edit]

Esparza's work has been showcased at many notable public art institutions. The institutions include:


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Artist Rafa Esparza is using 5,000 adobe bricks to make a building-inside-a-building in Hollywood". LA Times. 2015-07-23. Retrieved 2015-10-05.
  2. ^ Solis, Nathan (2015-03-04). "Con/Safos: Rafa Esparza's Outdoor Art Space | Los Angeles | Artbound". KCET. Retrieved 2015-10-05.
  3. ^ a b c "No. 247: Rafa Esparza, William Pope.L". 28 July 2016.
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  6. ^ "Sound file" (MP3). Archive.kchungradfio.org. Retrieved 2015-10-05.
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  9. ^ "Queer Art Prize 2018 Recent Work Finalist - Rafa Esparza". QUEER | ART. 2018. Archived from the original on 7 January 2023. Retrieved 29 May 2023.
  10. ^ "LA Artists and Nightlife Personalities Make Garments that Sparkle with Ingenuity". Hyperallergic. 2018-07-10. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  11. ^ a b c d "Rafa Esparza staring at the sun". MASS MoCA. 9 November 2018. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  12. ^ Dorian Wood, Queer Artist, Premieres 'O' (Video), The Huffington Post.
  13. ^ Knight, Christopher. "'Made in L.A. 2016': Hammer Museum biennial proves a thoughtful place to ponder the possibilities". LA Times. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  14. ^ Radio, Southern California Public (2016-06-09). "Artist Rafa Esparza moves a load of earth for 'Made in LA' exhibition". Southern California Public Radio. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  15. ^ Esparza, Erin Christovale and Rafa (2016-07-11). "Things Left Behind: Black Screen 16:9". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  16. ^ "Cassils: Artwork: In Plain Sight". www.cassils.net. Retrieved 2023-08-04.
  17. ^ Pogrebin, Robin (2016-11-17). "Here Comes the Whitney Biennial, Reflecting the Tumult of the Times". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  18. ^ Tewksbury, Drew (2017-05-03). "Performance Artist Rafa Esparza Is Fighting Invisibility, One Brick at a Time". L.A. Weekly. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  19. ^ Quade, Kirstin Valdez (2017-08-17). "The Other Side of the Wall: A New Generation of Latino Art". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  20. ^ a b "Rafa Esparza De La Calle". Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  21. ^ Miranda, Carolina A. (25 June 2018). "Why artist Rafa Esparza led a surreal art parade through the heart of L.A.'s fashion district". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  22. ^ Jen, Alex (2018-07-10). "LA Artists and Nightlife Personalities Make Garments that Sparkle with Ingenuity". Hyperallergic. Retrieved 2023-11-21.
  23. ^ "Commonwealth and Council / Pasado mañana". Commonwealth and Council. 20 January 2018. Retrieved 2022-07-28.
  24. ^ "Commonwealth and Council / Frieze Los Angeles 2019". Commonwealth and Council. 15 February 2019. Retrieved 2022-07-28.
  25. ^ Gutiérrez, Raquel (2019-09-27). "Performing Across from the White House, Artist Rafa Esparza Chips Away at the Myths of Democracy". ARTnews.com. Retrieved 2023-11-21.
  26. ^ Gutiérrez, Raquel (2019-09-27). "Performing Across from the White House, Artist Rafa Esparza Chips Away at the Myths of Democracy". ARTnews.com. Retrieved 2023-05-24.
  27. ^ Hillstrom, Laurie (2020). Family Separation and the U.S.-Mexico Border Crisis. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440876622.
  28. ^ "Commonwealth and Council / Art Basel 2020". Commonwealth and Council. 19 June 2020. Retrieved 2022-07-28.
  29. ^ Amadour, Ricky. "Review: Shattered Glass at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery". California Art Review. Retrieved 2023-04-17.
  30. ^ Maddox, Georgina (24 February 2020). "Rafa Esparza's exhibition transforms MASS MoCA's white walls into a 'brown-scape'". Stir World. Archived from the original on 12 January 2023. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  31. ^ Esparza, Rafa (2022-11-29). "How rafa esparza transformed himself into a lowrider cyborg for Art Basel Miami". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-05-04.
  32. ^ "'Cruising Utopia' with rafa esparza's Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser (2022)". The Latinx Project at NYU. Retrieved 2023-05-04.
  33. ^ Guerrero, Fabian (2022-11-29). "Documenting rafa esparza's magic was a dream that is going to be with me forever". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-05-24.
  34. ^ "Immersing ourselves in SoCal's lowrider culture". Autoweek. 2016-12-07. Retrieved 2023-05-24.
  35. ^ Artishock (2019-03-28). "DRAG KINGS: UNA ARQUEOLOGÍA DE MASCULINIDADES ESPECTACULARES EN AMÉRICA LATINA". Artishock Revista (in Spanish). Retrieved 2023-05-04.
  36. ^ Esparza, Rafa (2022-11-29). "How rafa esparza transformed himself into a lowrider cyborg for Art Basel Miami". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-05-10.
  37. ^ O'Leary, Erin (2023-02-25). "Interview with rafa esparza". Carla. Retrieved 2023-11-21.
  38. ^ Oriol, Estevan (2022-11-29). "Bárbara Sánchez-Kane and Estevan Oriol prepared a high-fashion send-off for the cyborg". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-11-21.
  39. ^ Jen, Alex (2018-07-10). "LA Artists and Nightlife Personalities Make Garments that Sparkle with Ingenuity". Hyperallergic. Retrieved 2023-11-21.
  40. ^ O'Leary, Erin (2023-02-25). "Interview with rafa esparza". Carla. Retrieved 2023-11-21.
  41. ^ "Commonwealth and Council / rafa esparza". Commonwealth and Council. Retrieved 2023-08-04.




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