Occidental’s Wanlass artist in residence embodies art

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Rafa Esparza stood on a hilltop in Elysian Park in a white suit with a sequined bullseye on the back. For 14 hours, he whittled branches into hundreds of small daggers. Every few minutes he would stop and collapse on the ground, representing victims of police brutality.

Esparza, a Los Angeles-based artist, is Occidental’s current Wanlass artist in residence. He is known for avant garde installations and performance art that carries a social message and is often tied to his Mexican roots. Just this summer Esparza was chosen to be part of the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA exhibition, and now offers his unique style of art to Occidental.

The Wanlass artist in residence program began four years ago, funded by the Wanlass family. Esparza is Occidental’s fourth artist in residence. Professor Mary Beth Heffernan, department chair for Occidental’s art and art history department, explained that one of the goals of the program is to expose students to different mediums of art and expand their definitions of art.

“These classes have been a transformative experience for the students and it’s incredibly gratifying to see students come out changed,” Heffernan said.

Esparza, who often chooses to perform outside of gallery spaces, grounds his work in political or cultural issues. A few years ago, Esparza discovered his love for performance art after a lifetime of drawing and painting.

“I feel like sometimes painting isn’t doing the same thing as dancing or moving or creating gestures with my body,” Esparza said.

Esparza’s work is heavily influenced by the campus and neighborhood activism he participated in while attending East Los Angeles College. Esparza explained that performance art is a powerful tool for activism because it is a medium historically used to voice criticism. He noted that performance art was originally created to critique the elitism of more traditional types of art.

“I feel like [performance art] still has the power to be subversive and to critique the different institutions that we’re all kind of tethered [to] and forced to navigate on a daily basis,” Esparza said.

For Esparza, using his body in performance makes his craft more personal. He added that body-based performance art is a cathartic way for him to respond to injustice or oppression that has affected him.

“Bodily practices have always been a way for me to make sense of relationships with space and forces that are very conflicting and difficult and sometimes traumatic,” Esparza said.

Esparza hopes to share his love for body-based performance with the students he is teaching this fall.

“I really hope that they walk away with a sense of knowing their body in a way that they maybe never knew,” Esparza said.

Esparza’s class called “Manos de Obra: Bodies Making Los Angeles” exposes students to different approaches to performance art. He brings in local artists and activists, from filmmakers to group organizers, to lead interactive workshops with students. Esparza hopes this hands-on approach will give his students a comprehensive understanding of performance art.

Esparza has also brought adobe brick making to his class, another unique element of his work. Esparza has created installations with thousands of adobe bricks, a practice that was inspired by his father.

“[Brick making is] a moment for us to be together without the sort of pressure of intellectualizing this process, really just being together and see what that generates, what kind of bonds that generates, what kind of conversations that generates,” Esparza said.

Building a sense of community in the class is important to Esparza. He believes students need to feel comfortable to do performance work and hopes they will learn to feel secure when performing in front of others. Esparza recognizes this practice can be challenging for students and notes that he too is nervous when experimenting with a new performance style. In one such instance, a guest artist introduced an exercise to his class that asked students to sing together to make an original song.

“I had never used my voice. I have this great fear of speaking. So I’ve had to meet my own challenges as well every day when I come to class. It’s been amazing to jump those hurdles together with the class,” Esparza said.

Beyond his class, Esparza lectured about his practice Oct. 25 in Choi Auditorium. The presentation began with Esparza explaining the personal and cultural history behind some of his recent performances. He discussed how the works were tied to his Mexican roots and to his relationships with family members and described each performance in detail.

Esparza’s class will culminate in a collective piece with the help of student and faculty volunteers. For those who are interested in exploring Esparza’s work, the Weingart Gallery is open for visitors to observe and experience the workspace of Rafa Esparza and his class.

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