Calida Rawles is known for her hyperrealistic paintings that render Black women and men immersed in water. Beginning as photographs of friends and family, Rawles' paintings explore the troubled social history of water in the United States while simultaneously representing water as a source of solace for her subjects.Read More
The centrality of water in Calida Rawles' work derives from her fascination with the sensation of being in water, as well as the play of light that accompanies its reflective surface. For the artist, water is foremost 'a spiritually healing element', as she said in a 2020 interview with Juxtapoz.
At the same time, Calida Rawles explores the historical connotations of water for African Americans. Drawing on American novelist Toni Morrison's theory of water memory, in which water retains an impression of the material that passes through it, Rawles uses water as a means to depict the intergenerational impact of slavery and segregation. As part of the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved Africans were transported to the United States across the Atlantic Ocean, during which approximately two million perished. Additionally, under the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black people had restricted or were prohibited access to public bodies of water, which has lingering effects today: older members of Rawles' own family cannot swim and the artist herself learned to do so only as an adult.
Calida Rawles also uses the historical resonances of water to reference contemporary issues, including racism and police brutality. In the Light (for Stephon Clark) (2018), which portrays her nephew, pays tribute to the 22-year-old Black man who was killed by police in that year. In Radiating My Sovereignty (2019), the artist embedded the maps of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Coral Springs, Florida into the portrait, two locations where police assaulted young African American girls.
As with the duality of water's associations, Calida Rawles' paintings also celebrate Black culture by emphasising hope and solidarity. Little Swimmer (2016) shows a young girl completely submerged in water, her ease anticipating an optimistic future. Yesterday Called and Said We Were Together (2019), a tribute to the artist's late cousin, depicts an expanse of tranquil pale blue that is undisturbed save for the small ripples and light bouncing off the surface where two women wade forward together.
Calida Rawles began to gain wider recognition when her work was featured on the cover of The Water Dancer (2019), a novel by American author and Rawles' friend Ta-Nehisi Coates. In 2020, Rawles held her first solo exhibition, A Dream for My Lilith, at Various Small Fires, Los Angeles, which led to her representation by Lehmann Maupin. Her first solo exhibition with the gallery is scheduled for September 2021.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021