Daniela Rivera , a Boston area artist who explores ethical issues through large-scale architectural installations, has won the 2019 Rappaport Prize. The $35,000 prize is awarded annually by the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln and honors a contemporary artist with strong ties to the New England area.
“This is a life-changer for me,” Rivera said in a phone interview. Rivera learned the news while working on an installation in Buenos Aires. She was standing on a 10-foot-tall ladder, applying copper to a wall, when she picked up the phone. “I was speechless when they called me. I thought it was a joke,” she said.
Born in Chile, Rivera studied painting at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and established a studio practice in Santiago, where she also played in a rock band.
She moved to Massachusetts in 2002 with her then-husband, intending to stay only a year. When the move became permanent, Rivera had to reinvent herself and her practice. “Everything got sort of turned upside down,” she said. Rivera gave birth to her child, divorced, and struggled to make her mark in the Boston art world as an underfunded single mother.
Winning the prestigious prize feels like a confirmation of the past 17 years, she said. “I’ve been trying to build homes where I can actually talk about things that matter to me — ethics, responsibility, a lot of political issues,” she said.
“This was like, ‘Hey, you have a home. You’ve created the home,’ ” Rivera said. “I’m gonna start crying again. That was so big.”
After moving to the United States, Rivera began to create installations and painted sculptures. She slowly built a practice, exhibiting at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Institute of Contemporary Art, and the LaMontagne Gallery, and started teaching art at Wellesley College in 2008.
Rivera was born in 1973, just months before General Augusto Pinochet staged a coup d’etat and initiated a decades-long dictatorship in Chile marked by violent political repression. Growing up under a dictatorship informed Rivera’s approach to art-making: as a means for furthering conversations about dislocation, national identity, and global migration, among other themes.
In “Daniela Rivera: The Andes Inverted” (2017-18) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Rivera tore down layers of the institution’s walls to expose the structures underneath, in an immersive installation dedicated to the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile. She built large, painted sculptures that mimicked mountains through a trompe-l’oeil effect, and incorporated other materials and sounds gathered from her research in the mine. The exhibit explored the disruptive effects of copper mining, Chile’s largest industry.
The Rappaport Prize allows artists to spend their winnings however they choose. Rivera will use the funds to maintain her studio practice and also to develop an opera about migration, with the goal of exploring “the psychology of the immigrant, and that permanent sense of loss, the constant exhaustion,” she said.
Rivera is the 20th recipient of the Rappaport Prize. Past recipients include Titus Kaphar, Sam Durant, and Barkley L. Hendricks. Earlier this year, the Rappaport Foundation made an additional gift of $500,000 that increased the annual award amount from $25,000 to $35,000.
The artist will deliver the annual Rappaport Prize Lecture at the deCordova on Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. Visitors can register for the free event on the museum’s website.