Rafael Pérez Evans Awarded the Supporting Emerging Talent Scholarship
We sat down with Spanish-Welsh artist Rafael Pérez Evans who has been awarded the 2020 Supporting Emerging Talent Scholarship.
Created in conjunction between Leeds School of Arts and The Henry Moore Institute (HMI), in partnership with New Contemporaries, the scholarship supports emerging talent in contemporary art. Totalling £5,000, this award comprises a living stipend, residential accommodation at HMI, travel to an international location that supports the ongoing development of the artist’s practice, facilities and materials for making, an exhibition at HMI and eight days of teaching in fine art at Leeds School of Arts.
Born in 1983, Rafael Pérez Evans is a Spanish-Welsh artist who holds a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths University, where he is currently studying for his MFA. As well as having lived in Spain and the UK, Rafael has spent time in the USA, Mexico and Brazil, which has helped develop his interest in ethnography and ideas around the local vs the global, which help to inform his work. Working primarily with installations, Pérez Evans’ explores issues around knowledge, progress, urbanisation and consumption. In addition to the Supporting Emerging Talent Scholarship, Rafael has also been awarded the Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2019 (UK), Chelsea Arts Club Trust Scholarship 2019 (UK), ‘A Secas’ Award C.A.A.C Museum 2017 (Spain),and was nominated for the DKV Prize 2018 (Spain) and the Miquel Casablancas Award (2017 & 2018).
Following his first week of teaching at Leeds Beckett in January 2020, we sat down with Rafael to discuss what he thought about Leeds Beckett, our students, the city of Leeds, as well as exploring some of the ideas that underpin his art. Rafael was impressed by the space Leeds Beckett students have and how the studios of Broadcasting Place encourage a sense of collaboration and act as a “balanced ecosystem of makers and making”. Working with students and discussing how they can really push their work as far as it can go, Pérez Evans was struck by how some students “made me feel conservative” and highlighted some parts of his own processes that he wishes to interrogate. In addition to this, his work at Leeds Beckett has allowed him to share different conceptions of how to navigate the world with students because, as he puts it, “teaching is a negotiation”.
Rafael has found that spending time in the city of Leeds has highlighted several ideas that permeate his artistic work. By being in a city that has more space, and fewer pressures than say London, it was possible to encounter “a kind of a kindness that I hadn't encountered in a long time. And kindness is very key and integral I think to address of the emergencies of our time”. This connection between place and mindset is something that fascinates Pérez Evans who is interested in how notions of the urban vs the rural manifest themselves in “hierarchies of pleasures” which create the idea that “if you're not in the capital or in the city, you're missing out”. These politics of identity have been the focus of a lot of what Pérez Evans does and his aim is to be “re-articulating or making visible” those ideas that shape our everyday lives but of which we are not necessarily conscious. By doing so he believes that we can address many of the issues that we face as a society and avoid “consuming people as we consume objects and goods”.
You can read a full transcript of the interview below ->
Firstly, congratulations on the scholarship! Can you talk us through what first brought you to Leeds and what you are now up to?
Rafael Pérez Evans (RPE): I first came to Leeds in 2019 after submitting an entry for New Contemporaries, which has been running for 70 years, and I was very fortunate to be selected as one of the successful artists. From there I came to be exhibited in Leeds Art Gallery and from the exhibition, I was then generously selected to take part in the symposium, ‘Identity, Making & Materials’, which was hosted at Leeds Art Gallery alongside the Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2019 exhibition. Among the panel was Mike Nelson, which was great because Mike is an extraordinary artist and to be sat side-by-side on a panel with him was an extraordinary experience. After that happened, I was awarded the scholarship.
You’ve already completed four days of teaching at Leeds Beckett, how has that been?
RPE: It has been really, really beautiful in many ways. First of all, there is something about being outside of the capital [London] which gives more space. Students here have more space physically to make, you have very large, very good facilities. But there is also a different kind of temporality here in which people are making. There are different pressures and stresses that are affecting the making here in Leeds which I find very fruitful and conducive to making in a different way. I’ve encountered several students through tutorials and have been very refreshed by how they’re thinking about the idea of place, how they are thinking about where they are and how that shapes their work. Which is great as I really like to think a lot about space. I’ve had many wonderful conversations with these young makers and it has been very refreshing and is helping with updating what I think making is these days.
That’s really good to hear. Is there anything else that has stood out as interesting when working with Leeds Beckett students?
RPE: I find it really interesting here how they are all working together and sharing space. It is not as closed off as it is in other places where I teach. Here it is more open, it is a more porous space of osmosis and interaction and they have a very open-plan space. That requires one to be quite generous to the other, to be aware of the other and how your behaviour might impact others. But I mean this in a good way, I found it to be very interesting – it is a kind balanced ecosystem of makers and making.
What is it that you’ve been working on with the students?
RPE: We have been working on a series of things. A lot of art teaching is a one-to-one intense process of conversing regarding contextual analysis, formal analysis and then for me considering the edges of a piece of work and moving from the centre of the conversation to the edges and how far students have pushed the work. I like setting that edge and then within that edge considering where that work could move to, and whether it could be pushed even further out or if it needs to be bought back in. So those conversations happen in a lot of different ways and they can be quite intricate journeys into navigating the concerns of these young creators. The work has been around that really.
So have you been exploring your own work with Leeds Beckett students?
RPE: Yes that is always there. I can only speak to any other human being from my experience and my making, although it is not just my making, it is all the makers I have read and seen, and non-makers, writers, and people outside the realm of art. It’s quite packed when we’re talking about art and who is in the room, all the histories, people and theorists involved.
With regards to your own work and the exhibition you will have at the Henry Moore Institute could you talk us through some of the themes and what you might be showing?
RPE: Yes the work still requires some research time, which I will be coming back after my next week of teaching to do. At the moment, I'm looking a lot into aspects of rootedness and un-rootedness. I’m a Spanish-Welsh person and come from southern Spain and I've been sort of looking at what a Spanish creator terms the “southern condition”. In this southern condition, I'm looking into how land and soil becomes mobile and available for foreign investment and things getting rooted historically that become uprooted and mobile. So with this in a very simple way, just thinking around things moving in space, and then in a kind of more conceptual way, looking at how things are made available to movement. In the case of southern Spain, how a lot of lands got uprooted from peasants and made available for sale. I look at all these histories of how the land and ground sort of spatially holds us, and then at times gets taken from us. I like to think a lot about thievery, like things that are thefts, things that are stolen, things that are that were in place and then get taken up. It will have to do with that and as I'm working more through installation and sculpture at the moment and making things that are mobile, I'm working with a lot of things that can be pushed. If we just look at delivery people, the sort of props and tools they use to wheel things in and out. Those kinds of objects I'm very, very concerned with them and physically how packages, objects and commodities move around. So I probably will be using some of those as a kind of structure to hold in place the other things that I'm looking to include.
There is something about objects that we have around us like a bottle of water, or I don't know, like a chair; how did this come to be? Who made this? How did it arrive here? So that's why for me, it is quite important to have this and the equipment that moves these objects and delivers them to us. It’s becoming quite integral for me to make those objects visible because those objects are telling us about the fact that they are moving, they are being brought to you, that there are workers touching that bottle of water that you have in your hand that didn't just magically arrive in the shop. It came from a place and leaves traces of how things come to us as we consume them. So it is like creating visibility of something that is quite invisible. And paying attention to those traces is becoming quite integral to my making.
Does this tie in with the notion of people’s identities being inseparable from the processes and activity they are involved in from day-to-day?
RPE: Yes, yes. Exactly. It's kind of this idea of transparency versus opacity. I'm thinking at the moment about a text by Édouard Glissant, who was a creole writer, and he talks about the right to opacity. The right to opacity is the right to not be transparent. So on one side of my work, I think I'm dealing with the tension between making some things more transparent, things that have been historically or through the forces of the market made invisible, magically visible. So like the bottle of water, you pretty quickly forget that this came from a place, that it got delivered. So I want to be creating more transparency and visibility for those traces. But on the other hand, I am thinking how we can also reserve and we can reconsider how much we want to disclose in terms of identities, in terms of our culture, in terms of our, let's call it secrets. We live in hyper transparent times, for you to trust me, you need to see that I am a trustworthy person, and that requires a certain transparency. But that trust also has to do with the market. If you don’t trust me, you're not going to, we're not going to exchange goods. So there's this author [Glissant], who says that we also can retain aspects of identity and not disclose, and coexist in those differences. And in that mystery of me, not really knowing a lot of things about you and you not knowing so many things about me, perhaps not requiring to know those things and me not requiring to know those things of you. I know it sounds really quite abstract but it's quite a beautiful kind of way of resisting sort of neo-liberal clarity and transparency. I’m dealing with that. It still requires time and energy and research to sort of fully arrive at something physical, but it's an intuition that is moving me to a new place.
Linked to the idea you mentioned of pushing boundaries, and the regional versus the national and the global, is there something about experiencing the North of England, Yorkshire and Leeds that mirrors what you've been doing in your work?
RPE: Absolutely. I've been talking to a lot of faculty here and had conversations as to how the pressures of the market are different here. Of course, they're happening here, and I'm sure a lot of artists are wanting to be exhibiting in MOMA tomorrow, but some of them don't. And I think that's valuable. I think that makes a different kind of making. There are new makers, really focused on the art that is kind of resisting a bit this mad global tendency of artists pushing, and engaging in this kind of severe marketing that is at times taking away from making and thinking and I found them be very refreshing. There have been the conversations that I've had here with faculty, but also people, curators and theorists that have been passing by the Henry Moore Institute. Yesterday, I had almost a six-hour conversation with Judith Winter, who was the curator of the Edward Allington show, we talked a lot about pedagogy and education and, and “unlearning”, which is something that I like to think about; unlearning structures that are urgently problematic, that educational spaces can also be spaces of unlearning things that are no longer necessary for humanity.
That’s very interesting. Could you expand on those ideas a bit more and unpack your thoughts about learning and unlearning?
RPE: Unlearning to me comes from a place of disenchantment. I like to think about how I come from a small village in southern Spain and I was kind of enchanted or under the spell, as a gay man, that I needed to move to a big city and live my great gay life, whatever that means; the shiny lights, the sensuous bodies and all of these things. But about nine years ago, I got severely disenchanted with that and in London severely disenchanted with queer life in the UK, and in Europe, severely disenchanted with a lot of politics that were happening. And that gave me a sort of push to try other things outside, move to the US to a queer commune. And then from there, I moved to and worked in Mexico for two years and then two and a half years in Brazil and during that time I encountered people that were thinking around pedagogy very differently and thinking about the effects of Western ways of thinking and how it affected them. In Brazil, they are still battling this daily. If you move outside of the centre, we move outside of Europe, you start seeing the effects of European thinking very, very clearly. You know this is like the colonial thinking.
Do you see these like echoes or ripples of Western thought?
RPE: No they are not ripples, they’re direct effects that are severely affecting a lot of communities in the world. Our exploitative history is still having a direct effect on these people. Michael Tausig, who is a great anthropologist whose work I love, says anthropology and ethnography is never a study of another or shouldn't be a study of another but should be a great mirror, or this is my paraphrasing. it's a great mirror to study Western thinking and capitalism. If you move outside of the centre, and if you go and not study other people, but be with those other people, they have a critical vantage point to understand the effects of our thinking and who we are. It's kind of like we need anthropology, I think, not to study other cultures but to understand the messiness that we have created. Anthropology can be this mirror of urgency that will help us understand the mess and how to untangle aspects of that mess. So me being in the global south and having opportunities to be there is helping me to see ways of unlearning the structures that had been placed in my body through being born a European citizen, for example. That's what I mean by unlearning. And I think institutions can embrace this and some of them are moving towards that unlearning. That is what I try to bring into the classroom wherever possible.
Are you saying then when being here, in the West, that there is a certain level of noise that obscures this mirror?
RPE: I don't know if it is noise but rather it is about what I got sold about what humanity should be, or what my humanity should be, what I got sold that my friendships should be, my sexuality should be, my mind should be. At some point that just kind of stopped working in quite a severe way. The illusions and dreams of being this kind of queer person in the big city, this started collapsing and that disenchantment, fortunately, became a motor towards finding other communities, whether they were queer or not. And to find other thinkers outside of Europe, people like Oscar Freire in Brazil, Claudio Naranjo & Alejandro Jodorowsky from Chile and many more have been highly influential in how I think about life, and they are almost like ghosts that I carry with me. I like to always think the room is always filled with a lot of people, those kinds of spectres. So it's not about the noise. It's about clarity and transparency. That which is too clear and transparent and that needs to become more opaque, more mysterious.
It is really interesting to see how much overlap there is between art, the politics of queer identity and wider philosophy. When using frameworks like post-structuralism, do you also view art as an exercise in reflecting and identifying the ingrained thoughts about identity that we have?
RPE: Absolutely. When I first started, I read a lot of Foucault, and it was a tool that I needed, but now, I'm trying to kind of move forward from that because I think this kind of excess of transparency that's happening in queer identity and in queer representation; whether it's in social media or in other places, the market has kind of taken over that transparency. The need for representation which I obviously support, this need of safety and this need of kind of visibility are extraordinarily essential yet at the same time, this is being co-opted by the market. So how can we start resisting? How can queerness move, or at least for me my own queerness move forward through opacity, through a right to not be transparent, through a right of non-disclosing? Not with disclosing sexuality but more about a right of difference and a right of not explaining that difference. How can we teach each other some kind of empathy with me letting you be you, and you let me be me, without me kind of giving you an X-ray account and narration of what it is that I am. I think we're living in times of X rays and I have an issue and a difficulty with that forensic level of transparency. This is very much my own hypothesis, but we are forensically examining each other for this trust, for markets, for our markets to grow, expand, and I think I'm very tired of that examination and very tired of, the forensics involved in that. And I wonder as Glissant asks if I can claim a right to opacity for my own body, history, sexuality, and all of these things.
Are you referring to the market somehow commodifying your identity and the declaration of identity?
RPE: What I'm trying to say is that the market is asking us to be present, to be visible, to be transparent. And to make everything visible. We become transparent entities that you can kind of see-through us, you can see everything, every aspect of it. What happens if we start covering up some of those things? What happens if some things are not disclosed and what happens with a difference, because I think the crises we're dealing with at the moment, in my opinion, have to do with a crisis of the differences and how we deal with differences, and how some politicians are capitalising on this.
I like to think a lot of the work of David Hammons, who is an American artist who is quite slippery in his relationship to the art market and his own culture and country. He doesn't let you hold him, he is more opaque and not transparent. He plays with that. He is disobedient.
You have talked about how your favourite themes of originality, globality, visibility and opacity have informed your teaching both previously and during your time in Leeds, but how does the experience of teaching and working with students then inform your ideas and these themes?
RPE: Well, it brings back a lot actually. Because teaching is a negotiation. My work is all about negotiating things. I'm negotiating my place in the world and negotiating my relationship to objects. Negotiating my relationship to history, to places. So when I'm talking with you, I'm negotiating things as well, right now it's a negotiation about how much to give, how much to not give, what to give. So that kind of negotiation also happens with students and I think it's a very refreshing negotiation because art students a lot of the time come up with negotiations which I haven't experienced before. And every time that happens, I feel very surprised. They come from a place that they're navigating the world in a way that I've never navigated. And that is a wonderful thing. It's a big gift to share that navigation. I usually share how I navigate things and negotiate things, and they come up with a new compass. They are like ‘actually, well, you're pointing this way, but I'm pointing here’. It's like a tension, a negotiation, and it’s an exercise in orientation. Like Sarah Ahmed, who is a great theorist, who writes about orientation and disorientation. She says that queer people can also get disoriented or we should utilise queerness to disorient ourselves against normative society and the orientations it places on us to navigate the world and ourselves. And I think the space of an art institution can be a place in which disorientations happens. We are taken to other places, we are navigated in a new way to new places, new ways of thinking, new ways of experiencing things. So that's for me what I share with the students; it's a negotiation from them to me and from me to them. As I said, it's a sharing of compasses and maps. Getting lost together, and then finding another way to wherever it is we are trying to get to.
Are there any recent examples you can think of where somebody really surprised you when doing this?
RPE: A Leeds Beckett student recently surprised me about the bluntness of thinking about things in a shameless way, which made me feel conservative. I don't feel conservative very often, but it made me think that I am already outdated in some relationships. I'm not going to talk about the specificity because it's about their work, but they’ve revealed to me that I'm being “shameful” about something. I use shame a lot, not necessarily shame related to being nude or something stupid like that, but shame as a kind of a core aspect of our culture that stops us from thinking or getting close to certain things. There is also the idea of orientation again which, like Sarah Ahmed says helps us deal with distances and society usually orientates us towards certain objects, people, groups or architectures but she tries to contest those distances in order to create new ones. In this art, students sometimes have really incredible proximity to things that I don't have, so they bring me closer to things, places, ideas that I would never come into proximity to, and that's really a valuable thing. It is quite an intimate thing to come close to something. Not just a person, but an idea or a way of rethinking something in our lives.
Is there anything in particular about being in Leeds that strikes you from an artist’s perspective, and which is helping to shape your work and thinking?
RPE: Absolutely. I go to the supermarket and some people talk to me, I mean, it sounds almost corny, but people are nice here. I've encountered a kind of a kindness that I hadn't encountered in a long time. And kindness is very key and integral I think to addressing of the emergencies of our time, empathy and kindness are really essential for a kind of a better future. So bumping into kindness has happened regularly and I've been kind of shocked at the kindness of a lot of the people that I've encountered, the kindness in conversation, and that people feel more spacious in how they live here and that is something that I need to get contaminated with. In London, we contaminate each other with stress and anxiety. And here I'm sure you have plenty of stresses but there's a tiny bit more space and that spaciousness creates, in my opinion, more kindness and that is something I hope to continue to bump into.
As I said earlier, I come from a small town so that spaciousness that I encounter as a young person is both physical and in the bodies of the people that I was close to. So for me, for some strange reason, I feel very at home here and it's happened since I arrived. Some cities you arrive and think ‘this is not for me’ but regarding Leeds, I feel very at home. I can't fully explain why but I feel homely here, the people I encounter and how those encounters happen, the mindedness of the people in the supermarket, you buy something, and someone smiles back. Whether this is maybe part of the market I don’t know but I see more kindness and smiles here than I ever do in London. And that for me is radical.
With regards to the impact of the rural vs the urban on peoples’ thinking, do you think an increased level of comfort and a peace, or even a nostalgia, comes from connecting with nature and the more rural side of life?
RPE: When I was a youngster, I always felt that I was missing out by being in the country. For being a country boy. It's like the centre and the city creates this kind of black hole or this kind of vacuum that you feel like, you're not there, you're not at the centre of things and you're missing out. That is a construction, the centre constructs these hierarchies of pleasures, that if you're not in the capital or in the city, you're missing out. And that's a construction, and to be outside of that, to be in the periphery of things and to feel that shame of not being at the core or centre of things is something that we need to start contesting, regionally but also locally and to start re-articulating or making visible why that happens is for me quite important, for all of us to think about that vacuum and how that vacuum affects our everything, our sense of being, how we relate to each other, our sense of shame. I think a lot about rural shame, like rurality being constructed, with the rural peasantry and its history, at least in Spain, is a site shame, because even though it's a complete culture it is not “cultured” in terms of intellectual progress. So I like to think more and more of how we can contest that vacuum that the capital creates on us and be very aware of that, to see how we can start integrating or rethinking and creating new hierarchies of value in what we have here beyond the city.
Does this relate to the fact there is often more connection between people in villages then there are between say neighbours in the city, even if superficially there is less activity in the countryside?
RPE: That's really what I'm saying. This kind of empathy and kindness and actually, fighting city alienation and actually being able to speak to another human being is very important. We live in hyper-accelerated times in which we have very fast communication but in big cities, there is very little communication outside of the people that we know in a tight circle. So how we can start being aware of those issues and trusting or thinking that the village has a lot of knowledge that needs to be sustained and revalued, recalibrated. When I was younger the neighbour would help us and we would help the neighbour say if they were building something. There's no economic transaction, there's just human empathy and sort of kindness in living and that's changing already because my town became a city. The cityness is kind of creeping in and the metaphorical fences have been pulled up and distances are becoming greater. And the distrust is getting greater. So trust, distrust, rootedness, uprootedness, all of these things are things that I'm constantly kind of calibrating.
Is there a link between mental health and people’s sense of disconnection and alienation?
RPE: Of course, and I'm very aware of how I may sound very romantic in terms of how I speak of farming, agriculture and small towns but actually I just think that we can no longer sustain this sort of magic consumption of things. This is what I'm trying to say. How we consume each other, how we consume relationships, how we consume objects and foods. It can no longer be sustained in this sort of hyper-accelerated way, the acceleration doesn't allow us to kind of think about the biography of each thing that we have around us. We don't have time for that, we just consume it without considering the ethics of that consumption. And because we start consuming people as we consume objects and goods I think that we need to kind of decelerate that consumption and make visible all the things that that are involved in making objects and the foods that we have around us, to start reconsidering, if our accelerated consumption perhaps needs to slow down, needs to be looked at from various angles, not just magically kind of swallowed in and shut out, which is also happening with relationships. That's why for me, objects are really, really important because the way that we relate to objects now, unfortunately, is very similar to the way that we relate to people.
And finally, beyond your work in Leeds, what do you have coming up in the near future?
RPE: I will be having a solo exhibition on gallery four of the Henry Moore Institute in November, I’m also working towards a solo exhibition in Centro Parraga which is an institution in Spain, along with the Spanish curator Javier Sanchez who studied at Bards College in New York. He and I have been having a series of conversations regarding what I mentioned earlier, the southern condition, which looks at Southern Europe and various epistemic violences that has been happening there in recent history. Then I have other shows, hopefully coming up with another Spanish curator Jesus Alcaide, who's an extraordinary person and curator. I'll also have a show with all my MFA colleagues in July at Goldsmiths College. I didn’t mention that before, that I am a student as well as a teacher and an artist.