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MASS MoCA exhibition curated by PhD candidate Marco Antonio Flores featured in L.A. Times

A 2019 painting by Rafa Esparza shows Mexican immigrant laborers being sprayed with insecticide at a border processing center.(Kaelan Burkett / MASS MoCA)
Nov 29 2019

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By Carolina A. Miranda

It is 1956. A queue of Mexican immigrants stands at a processing station in Texas, about to be admitted to the United States as part of the bracero guest worker program. They are naked, clothes in hand, waiting for a masked attendant to douse them with DDT, an insecticide whose use would be banned in the U.S. just 16 years later.

It was this scene of casual brutality that photographer Leonard Nadel captured on film in his documentary series devoted to migrant labor (and its many abuses) in the 1950s. In the caption he submitted with the picture, he notes that the men were treated by border authorities in “much the same manner and feeling used in handling livestock.” The DDT shower was less a ritual of disease protection than a tool of humiliation.

Nadel’s indelible image serves as moving inspiration for a large-scale painting by Los Angeles artist Rafa Esparza that greets visitors to his solo installation at MASS MoCA, the contemporary art center in North Adams, Mass. 

A thick slab of adobe serves as Esparza’s canvas. His image puts a tight focus on the workers. Their strong bodies, their bowed heads, brown skin blending into brown adobe as a white cloud of poison envelopes their faces.

Esparza’s installation, “staring at the sun,” on display through the end of the year, is one of two exhibitions at MASS MoCA that contend, in different ways, with the border and the ways in which it marks division but also generates resilience and symbioses.
One floor up and a building over is a survey of work by Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez, who goes by the name “ERRE,” a show whose most visible component is a 120-foot corrugated metal sculpture titled “Of Fence,” from 2017, which evokes the rusty red look of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. At one point, “Them and Us / Ellos y Nosotros,” as the show is titled, forces viewers to choose a path through the gallery — under signs titled “Us” and “Them.” The two artists’ work could not be more different.
Esparza’s temple-like installation — in which he displays paintings on adobe in a gallery whose floor has also been covered in mud brick — is, to some degree, a meditation on material. Its brownness. Its earthiness. Its ephemerality. A material he uses as canvas to render portraits, not just of migrant workers but of friends and of family.
“Portraiture creates a legacy,” says the exhibition’s curator, Marco Antonio Flores. “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?