Calida Rawles' Mesmerizing Paintings

Jan 7, 2022

For Frieze LA 2020, Various Small Fires presented a selection of  paintings by the LA-based artist, Calida Rawles, for her first solo art fair presentation.

Calida Rawles Various Small FiresCalida Rawles wears ALMASIKA's Le Cauri Endiamanté and Berceau Open Cuff

The fair coincided with Rawles’ debut solo exhibition, “A Dream for My Lilith”— a title evoking the biblical figure deemed the first wife of Adam who is demonized for wanting to be equal. Rawles repositions the mythological figure of Lilith from malevolent spirit to sovereign being and reflects this rebellion through her paintings of African-American women and men submerged in water. 

Rawles creates visions of serenity in today’s turbulent times, highlighting the power of self-composure — her black models resting amongst raging and changing forces. Insisting upon the triumph of humanity, while also contending with anti-black violence/trauma

Yesterday Called and Said We Were Together, 2019 and Deep Surrender, 2020

Calida Rawles' debut solo exhibition was accompanied by public programming planned with the distinguished writer and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who collaborated with Rawles for the cover of his newest book release, The Water Dancer. The conversation was moderated by the LACMA curator of contemporary art Christine Y. Kim.

Both artists work with water imagery, Rawles in particular draws inspiration from water memory theory, an idea that water retains the memory of the substance or person that goes through it. Rawles contends with the duality of water as a healing and spiritual element and an element that tells a turbulent history from the Middle Passage slave ships coming to the segregation of beaches and pools under Jim Crow laws.

For Rawles, water is a spiritually healing element for all people, yet she recognizes its historical connotations to racial exclusion and cultural fears. She uses this complicated duality of water as a platform to address identity politics while reimagining her subjects beyond cultural tropes. At times, her work alludes to specific acts of violence, even making topographical maps of cities and where acts of racially targeted violence have occurred along the body.

Coates first novel “The Water Dancer” about an enslaved African American with a naturally gifted memory, much like the Rawles' conceptualization of water has the ability to remember. Even more literally, the namesake for the book points to the water dance in African American culture where water is placed on top of the head and the most complicated dance moves are executed while avoiding spilling water.

There’s so much historic symbolism found within the element of water. It’s a complex element through which both artists addressed difficult and divisive issues. It both makes things clear and obscures, it is both still and changing, raging or wading.