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Artist Rafa Esparza moves a load of earth for 'Made in LA' exhibition

Rafa Esparza puts together the final bricks for
Rafa Esparza puts together the final bricks for "Tierra," his piece at the Hammer Museum's "Made in LA" biennial.
Mark Pampanin/KPCC
Rafa Esparza puts together the final bricks for
Rafa Esparza's installation for the 2016 "Made in L.A." biennial includes a rocking chair with a cactus embedded in the seat.
Rafa Esparza puts together the final bricks for
A broken adobe brick made by Rafa Esparza for his installment, "Tierra," at the 2016 "Made in L.A." biennial.
Mark Pampanin/KPCC
Rafa Esparza puts together the final bricks for
Rafa Esparza (left) and curator Aram Moshayedi prepare for Esparza's piece, "Tierra," at the 2016 "Made in L.A." biennial.
Mark Pampanin/KPCC

Rafa Esparza is an installation and performance artists who focuses on queer and Chicano history and was born and raised on L.A.'s East Side. All of this made him apprehensive about participating in this years "Made in L.A." biennial at the Hammer Museum. 

"I remember when I first learned about the initial 'Made in L.A.,' I had questions about what the city was becoming, and what a biennial would do to the creative communities in the city," Esparza said.

"I love the diversity of cultural production in the city, and thinking about biennials as surveys, but also exhibitions that attempt to centralize a lot of cultural production, and do it within museums — this museum in particular being not as accessible to different art communities that are further east — [I wondered], Why does Los Angeles even need a biennial to begin with?"

Esparza likes to work outdoors. Particularly at The Bowtie Project, an 18-acre plot along the L.A. River near Atwater Village that's a partnership between Clockshop and the California Department of Parks and Recreation. That's where Esparza, along with his members of his family, have been making the adobe bricks that are central to Esparza's work. So when he finally agreed to accept the invitation for this year's "Made in L.A.," he brought the earth with him.

Esparza's installation, "Tierra," uses hundreds of adobe bricks to span the entirety of the Hammer's north terrace to create its own space outisde the white walls and stone floors of the museum. 

The Frame's Oscar Garza spoke with Esparza while he was constructing his piece.

Interview Highlights

Why don't we start first with the significance of the title of your piece?

"Tierra" — well, it's literally the material that is being used, being brought in, to serve as a platform, but also as a ground for people to walk on. Probably the only time we get to experience, or be surrounded by, this much earth is when we're six feet under. This is something that I wanted to bring in to the museum.

These are adobe bricks, and they were made at a site on the L.A. River where you had previously done some work. These bricks were made with the help of your father and members of your family?

Yeah, so that initial batch, he had already taught me how to make them years prior. But I wanted to engage my siblings [and] my mother for the same reasons I was initially interested: knowing my father's history and his relationship to land, and acknowledging my distance from land and not having that relationship.

And this was your way of re-connecting?

Re-connecting, but also inheriting that knowledge and that way of working.

You have said that your father learned this craft in Mexico, where he is from. He actually did this for a living for a period of time?

He did. It's a common practice in the town that he's from. It's a small pueblo, Ricardo Flores Magón in Durango. Adobe-making is something that he started doing as a teenager to make money to survive. But he also would do it on his off days to make enough bricks that he saved up to eventually make his first home.

When you first asked your father to teach you how to make these bricks, how did you explain to him what you wanted to do and why you wanted him to teach you?

The very first time that I asked him to help me make bricks is, um — we actually weren't on speaking terms. I had just come out. I think for my father, at the time, it was very easy for him to not acknowledge and to maybe, perhaps, forget that I'm gay. And so, there was a sort of wall that he put up and we weren't speaking. It was an uncomfortable situation.

Our conversation [while we made bricks] was all about what we were doing, what was the task at hand, you know: it needs some more water, it needs less straw, hand me that — it was all that kind of communication.

We'd sift mounds of dirt, tons a day, and then mix in horse dung, which is what my father used in Magón when he made them, that was part of the recipe. The horse dung we got from these horse stables that belonged to my father's friends that are at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena, so I'd go out and volunteer to clean out their stables.

You suffer for your art, Rafa

(Laughs) It was a lot of work! 

I will be leading a workshop here on Father's Day weekend. I'll be with my father instructing people that are visiting the museum what the recipe is and how to make adobe bricks.

So these bricks, the dimensions of them are what? 

The ones that we're making are 12-by-16 inches, and they're four inches thick. They're more like pavers as opposed to a brick, I think when people think [of a] brick, it's something they could hold with their hand, and for these, you need both hands. They weigh about anywhere between 35 and 45 pounds each. We brought about 1,400 [to the museum].

So, aside from the hundreds of adobe bricks that I've laid, as a sort of ground, but also a platform, there are 13 objects that were potentially going to make it onto this platform. And I say potentially because I invited 13 different peers to unearth these objects. All of these objects were buried in Elysian Park, which is the site of where some of the earliest displacement in Los Angeles happened, in Chavez Ravine.

And you had buried these pieces.

I had buried them there. I buried all of these different objects there. For instance, this chair.

And in this chair, there is a cactus that has been embedded in the [seat]. Tell me the significance of that.

I wanted to bring in something that could speak to resilience. It's been really beautiful to see how this plant has done exactly that. When I buried it a few months ago, I thought that would be it for the nopal, and Aram [Moshayedi, a co-curator of "Made in L.A."], who dug it up with me, he asked me if it was dead and I assured him it was, because I thought it was. And, literally, just over the last two weeks, these little nopalitos [cactus pads] started sprouting. Yeah, it's perfect, it's doing what it does, it's surviving and living.

What finally convinced you that you should participate in the show?

The curators [including Hamza Walker] were both — and have been throughout the entire process — really open to having these conversations. I've thought about my various workings with adobe in reimagining platforms or spaces that feel more specific and relevant to the ideas that I want to put forth. Bringing in the adobe is a continuation of those ideas, as well as responding to my relationship towards cultural institutions, like The Hammer, in the city.

"Made in L.A." opens June 12 and continues through Aug. 28 at the Hammer Museum in Brentwood.






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