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Rafa Esparza Transforms Audiences into Communities

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Photo by John Tain.

Rafa Esparza promised to make a "big brown mess" for El Hoyo, his July 20 performance at Human Resources. Esparza works with materials that one does not expect to encounter in an art gallery -- empty beer bottles and trash bags, for example. These things absorb and release personal and collective trauma and memory into the space. His work is deeply intimate and political; it merges with his audience to form a community response to violence against people of color. It resonates with specific violence, like that of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and with the histories that makes that violence familiar.

Esparza's invitation to El Hoyo:

how to teach him to stand his ground. that ground that is historically stolen>> replaced>>occupied. how to stand when standing itself is criminalized by surveilling eyes. how to stand carefully. how to stand intentionally. how to stand protectively. how to stand boldly. how to stand. join me and my lil' bro this saturday in el hoyo. brown boy life lessons.
In the wake of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, the invitation to share physical and psychic space with Rafa and his younger brother Beto Esparza was both joyous and mournful. Standing your ground has been on the minds of many. The question of "what and whose ground?" weighs heavier on the minds of those who are constantly under surveillance. And the community demands answers. The community of young brown queers, working-class family members and those artists and folks of migrant and immigrant backgrounds that gather around and inform Esparza's work are often excluded from art spaces, which is why most of his practice unfolds not in galleries but in public spaces. This made his takeover of Human Resources unusual and remarkable.

"El Hoyo" | Photo: John Tain
"El Hoyo" |  Photo: John Tain

Rafa started the performance with a silent dialogue about the criminalization of young black and brown men, staged on the sidewalk outside the gallery space. Rafa sliced the tips of his fingers and stood facing the closed entrance, which was covered with shiny leopard-print fabric. Eighteen year old Beto stood behind Rafa as he let the blood of ancestral spirit flow from him. In a reversal in guardianship, Beto stood protectively over Rafa, looking hard through his older brother. As Rafa bled and swung his arms, coming into close contact with the brown boy standing directly behind him, the distance between the two men was diffused across the leopard print canvas. A red X stretched across a fabric that invoked the textures of working-class immigrant life. There was a quiet but visceral audience response. When the brothers finished the action, the front door was rolled open. The audience crossed the blood-splattered threshold to enter into the gallery.

Esparza's installation transformed the inside of Human Resources into a site of mourning and refuge. A great room divider made from trash bags woven together spanned the length of the white box. On one side "empties" -- beer, wine and whiskey bottles painted black -- surrounded a dilapidated couch, which Esparza proceeded to tear down to its infrastructure. The lights switched off, and the audience was led through a hole in the curtain to the other side.

"El Hoyo" | Photo:  Allison Wyper
"El Hoyo" | Photo: Allison Wyper
"El Hoyo" | Photo: John Tain
"El Hoyo" | Photo: John Tain

There, Esparza and Nick Duran faced each other across a sandbox. One artist fell into the other's arms and was lowered to the ground. It seemed as if they repeated the gesture until they couldn't. In his collaborations, Ezparza draws out familial and queer bonds that play with age, race and gender. There is a level of nurturing solidarity amongst Esparza and each of his collaborators (often other brown men) that challenges white, straight masculine networks of power.


Two July performances are more typical of his public work. As a queer raza performance artist, Esparza's practice is anchored in site specific performances. Esparza and artist Sebastian Hernandez performed chino, indio, negro at Perform Chinatown 2013. This work responded to the Chinese Massacre of 1871. The mass lynching of Chinese immigrants began with a group of white men rioting near Placita Olvera on a street then named Calle de los Negros. Esparza and Hernandez began their performance alone and in memory of that history of violence. Together they posted up a sign that read Calle de los Negros. (Almost a week later the sign still stands.)

chino, indio, negro continued with Esparza lying on his back in the middle of Chung King Road. His arms and chest were bound together with rope. Hernandez worked to cover Esparza's face with plaster bandages. Esparza and Hernandez would not speak for the duration. Small crowds began to gather around the two men. Esparza's body parted the road and people slowed down to stare down at him, while Hernandez focused on unwrapping hundreds of firecrackers. His hands were busy. Members of the audiences asked if Esparza could breathe beneath the heaviness of the plaster mask. At the completion of his task, Hernandez stood up and grabbed a handful of firecrackers. He began to throw them at the mask with the concentration of a great danzante. The audience, feeling for the brown man on the road, worried now if the mask was enough to protect the artist. Esparza calls these public works "ephemeral memorials."

<em>chino</em>, <em>indio</em>, <em>negro </em>, Perform Chinatown 2013 | Photo: Chris Albidrez
chino, indio, negro, Perform Chinatown 2013 | Photo: Chris Albidrez,

On August 3, Esparza performed with the artist and composer Dorian Wood for CONFUSION IS SEX #3, the last of a performance series organized by artists DINO DINCO, Dawn Kasper and Oscar Santos. The event was staged at the Sepulveda Wildlife Basin. The organizers chose the site because in December 2012 the US Corps of Army Engineers bulldozed over 40 acres of land, thus displacing and killing the wildlife that once inhabited the area. The area was also a well-known gay cruising ground, and hosted encampments of the homeless. Esparza and Wood dug holes to bury their lower bodies in. Wood composed a score for the piece that the two men "vocalized". The two shared an intimacy that was not completely audible, but definitely tangible and specific to the history of the location. In Esparza's words, their performance explored "the inability to give voice to an unknown loss."

Esparza and the community that gathers around his work are able to hold space and learn from the struggles and violence that people of color are faced with. Esparza's work is welcoming to and actively engages with those who make up the racialized masculine other - his work speaks directly to and engages young people like his brother. He offers public lessons about inhabiting space, memory and time. His materials reactivate a brown and queer exchange of knowledge and history. At times it is a silent exchange of words and invisible gestures of acknowledgement that only those under surveillance can decipher.

&quot;El Hoyo&quot; | Photo: John Tain
"El Hoyo" | Photo: John Tain

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