In Calida Rawles’ world, Black bodies rise through sunlight and waves. The Los Angeles–based artist has earned widespread recognition for her exacting, ethereal depictions of water. Fittingly, Rawles’s work appeared on the cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel The Water Dancer in 2019. In her painting, a Black man is submerged in water. His arms are outstretched and curved like wings. The quiet of the image belies a formative point of the conflict: the protagonist, an enslaved man named Hiram Walker, is indelibly changed by the memory of his near-drowning in a carriage accident.
Of her work, Rawles said, “I’m trying to capture the figure in a pause, in the split seconds that your eye can’t always pick up, which is really intimate.”
Partly because of her work’s prominent placement on The Water Dancer‘s jacket and partly because her fan base includes figures like luminaries like Coates and painter Amy Sherald, and counts among her collectors Beth Rudin de Woody, Rawles has obtained widespread visibility. Her first solo exhibition, at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, sold out before its opening night. Now, the artist has new representation at the global gallery Lehmann Maupin with locations in New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London, and whose roster also counts Nari Ward, Cecilia Vicuña, and Catherine Opie. (Rawles will continue to be represented by Various Small Fires, which has spaces in Los Angeles and Seoul.) Her first solo exhibition with the gallery will take place in New York in September 2021, to coincide with the debut of a permanent installation at the new Hollywood Park/SoFi Stadium campus in Inglewood, California.
“When I first met Calida, I was instantly attracted to the performative and cinematic aspects of her work,” David Maupin, cofounder of Lehmann Maupin, told ARTnews. “She is pushing the boundaries of traditional painting and portraiture, and through her subjects has found a way to tell a very compelling story—one of hope and resilience.”
Rawles, 44, is still settling into fame. For about two decades, she sold paintings directly out of her studio, which was most recently a 700-square-foot studio space in Inglewood’s Beacon Arts Building. (Rawles is in the midst of moving to a larger studio.) A graduate of Spelman College with an M.A. in painting at New York University, Rawles worked primarily throughout her 30s as a graphic designer. In 2015, she turned her full attention to painting scenes of water.
The relationship between water, memory, and Black trauma is central to Rawles’ practice. Accompanying her sold-out solo exhibition at Various Small Fires in 2020 was a quote by Toni Morrison from the author’s critical talk “The Site of Memory”: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” The idea, called water-memory, purports that water preserves the memory of what runs through it. Rawles thought to apply it to the Middle Passage, the triangular trade route through which enslaved Africans were brutally transported across the Atlantic. She also researched Jim Crow–era segregationist laws, which she found bore a relationship to aqueous spaces: they either relegated Black Americans to smaller, less appealing sections of pools or beaches, or outright barred them altogether from entering certain waters.
Morrison, in her essay, wrote that memory was more true, and important, to Black Americans than history, as its repercussions are inherited by later generations. Rawles has found that to be the case herself, in some ways.
The artist’s own grandparents and parents never learned to swim, and Rawles, despite growing up in Delaware, not far from the Atlantic ocean, only learned to swim as an adult. She loved the quiet beneath the water’s surface, and she wanted to explore it further. She began inviting models to her studio, where she photographs them swimming for later reference.
“Most of my subjects don’t know how to swim very well,” she said. “I learned quickly that there is a difference between swimming and not drowning. I assess what they can do, and sometimes, if someone is very afraid, I’ll spend a half hour holding them, teaching them to relax their hips, tilt their head back, and float.”
She often takes around 400 photos per session, and spends days afterwards searching for the right frame. Her subjects include people of all ages, though the strongest works that were in her Various Small Fires show feature adolescent girls. At the time, Rawles was thinking a lot about the ways Black women and girls, in particular, are robbed of their selfhood. Current events—the rapper R. Kelly was in the headlines because Chicago-area Black girls had accused him of abuse—mingled with literary influences like Ralph Ellison’s seminal Invisible Man. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ellison’s unnamed narrator says in the book’s prologue, every surface of his apartment illuminated by lightbulbs.
In The Space in Which We Travel (2019), two girls in white dresses grasp each other’s hands, creating the impression of a double helix. “If they opened their eyes,” Rawles said, “they would see each other.” The large-scale piece was acquired recently by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and is currently installed in the exhibition “View from Here.”
“Some of Rawles’s other paintings brim with darker associations, with titles that memorialize Black youth killed in racially-motivated police shootings,” said Christine Y. Kim, the museum’s curator of art. “Water is consistently depicted as turbulent and terrifying but also enveloping and elevating.”
Rawles is moving in more abstract directions for her solo show with Lehman Maupin, where she will debut a new body of work. She’s also collaborating with Coates on the production for the film adaption of The Water Dancer, and working out the logistics of her public installation. At 2,000 square feet, it’s her largest work yet.
“I really am just beginning to explore all the spaces to play in water, all of its magnitude,” she said.