Calida Rawles merges photo-realism with poetic abstraction in large immersive paintings of African Americans – especially black girls in long white dresses – floating in deep pools of swirling water.
In 1998, Rawles graduated from Spelman College with a B.A. and in 2000 received her M.A. in painting at New York University. She worked as a graphic designer working at a t-shirt brand called Echo Unlimited. She wrote a children’s book, “Same Difference,” and afterwards devoted herself fully to art as a painter.
Rawles began to make paintings where water became imperative in her work. She would take hundreds of photographs of black people “moving through water” and merge areas of selected photographs to create a cohesive image, which served as a reference for the final painting. Her hyperrealism would juxtapose with “areas that are very abstract – real and yet unbelievable.”
Rawles draws on the power and symbolism of water to address racism. Because of the segregation of beaches and pools under Jim Crow laws, many African Americans never learned how to swim. “We in the black community have the highest rate of drowning.” Water – with its historical connection to black suffering through slavery’s Middle Passage and through Jim Crow legislation – also represents spiritual cleansing and serenity for Rawles.
In her first solo show at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, “A Dream for My Lilith,” 2020, she “photographed and then painted girls swimming in and around the rippling waves and liquid blue, surrounded by flickering stars that form when light hits the water in the right way.” While her work does not follow her photographs directly, there is realism but also a spiritual element and otherworldliness.
Recently she and textile artist Diedrich Brackens worked together to create a limited run of posters to raise funds for the Minnesota Freedom Fund, the Equal Justice Fund Initiative, the Black Visions Collective, and Black Lives Matter. The author Ta-Nehisi Coates used her paintings on the jacket of his new novel, “The Water Dancer.”
She has had exhibitions at Various Small Fires (VSF) in Los Angeles and Seoul; Frieze New York and Frieze Los Angeles. Her work has been exhibited at the Fullerton College Art Gallery, LACMA Inglewood Art + Film Lab; the San Francisco Arts Commission; and galleries in San Pedro and Inglewood California.
Her work is in the permanent collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.