Calida Rawles has been thinking a lot about light and darkness, in her artwork and beyond. “It feels like a very dark moment in our history, and it can become very overwhelming and anxiety-building,” the Los Angeles-based painter said in an interview with CNN, referring in particular to her response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, the climate crisis, and the impact of Covid-19 around the world.
“But I try to think of that as a moment where you can reflect and restart,” she continued. “Before there’s light, there’s darkness.”
This re-examination of darkness then forms the inspiration for Rawles’ latest body of work, “A Certain Oblivion.” Across a series of 10 large-scale paintings, Rawles captures the movement of young women and girls suspended in water, hovering just near the surface. Swirling pools of opaque blackness give the images a sense of uncertainty, but the subjects’ faces and bodies are positioned toward the light, conveying hope with a celestial presence amid the heaviness.
The artworks are newly on display at Lehmann Maupin in New York, marking Rawles’ first major solo exhibition on the East Coast. She had been working on the series since January, and “was literally painting right up until the truck came,” Rawles said of last-minute preparations and edits in advance of the show’s installation.
In many ways, “A Certain Oblivion” develops a key motif within Rawles’ practice — the depiction of water, its power, and the legacies and memories that it holds. Previous Rawles pieces shown at last year’s Berlin Biennale depicted Black bodies dressed in white clothing, submerged within brighter blue shades.
As the activist and political theorist Françoise Vergès, who curated a performance at the Biennale, wrote, Rawles tells us that “water is memory…as she juxtaposes Black joy and pain.”
“What I love about water is what it does to the body, of abstracting the form. I want my work to look like it’s in motion. None of them are still, they’re not posed portraits — these figures are in motion,” explained Rawles, who has exhibited across the US and internationally, and created the cover art for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2019 debut novel, “The Water Dancer.” “We’re always in motion. We’re always growing, changing, evolving and moving. I think that’s really important to capture: a state of flux and growth.”
For Rawles, the scale of her work too is important in creating this dynamism. In “A Certain Oblivion,” the relationship and proportions between the subject and the water is slightly altered from reality, giving a sense of abstraction and deconstruction — from different angles, her subjects’ bodies look different, mirroring the ethereality of water itself. “I think the figures are almost a little smaller but the water is so big that when you’re in front of it, you feel like you’re in the water itself and that is also impactful.”
Rawles worked with her daughters to create the reference photographs used for creating the eventual paintings. Her eldest daughter Skye helped photograph her younger daughters, Sage and Sienna, in a swimming pool, on both 35mm film and a digital camera. “It was definitely a team affair, and girl power, creating this work,” said Rawles “I think of my daughters as strong individuals that I’m definitely empowering to have a voice.”
“I work long hours on painting, and so this becomes our show,” she added. “It becomes a moment for the family. And it takes away a little of my mom guilt.”
Making these reference images together was also important for Rawles’ process — the resulting paintings are not exact portraits of her daughters, but representations of young women and girls in their likeness. Seven out of the 10 final paintings used photographs of her daughters that were shot at night. To achieve the dark colors she wanted for these images, she had to blend her palette together both with speed and the spirit of experimentation, explaining that it was often difficult to differentiate between the darkest blues, greens and black colors of the quick-drying acrylic paint.
In order to eliminate a light reflection on the dark paint on canvas, she often painted with her studio lights off or with her curtains shut. “It was kind of like painting in a shadow. It was a fun type of practice. I mean, I’m sure I’ve affected my eyes a little bit, everything is a little blurry now,” Rawles laughed. “But it’s all in the name of art!”
And yet while the importance of water remains central to Rawles’ work, “A Certain Oblivion” also plays with different themes, in terms of form, process and subject matter. “I think anytime you put Black bodies in water, there’s an undercurrent of the history that is linked,” she said, in reference to the legacies of slavery that previous works have evoked. “But in this body of work, I used my daughters to represent just the female form, and they just happen to be Black.”
Another part of her process was engaging with the story of Lilith, a folklore figure who is often depicted as the disobedient and malevolent first wife of Adam. (In ancient mythology, various versions of Lilith’s story include her creation from the same soil as Adam, her refusal to let Adam dominate her and her fleeing from the Garden of Eden.)
“If you streamline the story, that idea of a woman being demonized for wanting equality was fascinating to me,” said Rawles, reflecting on how the story resonated with her in the context of the rollback of women’s rights in 2023. “We’re further back than I anticipated,” she said. In some ways, painting this series was a way to reconcile some of her own expectations with reality for herself and her daughters. “These types of mythologies and stories; we need to rethink them, rebrand them and hold on to them.”
In one work, titled “Beyond the Certain Oblivion,” Rawles painted a map of the thirteen trigger states involved in the overturning of Roe, washing away their edges so they are obscured within the waves of the painting. “Part of me as an artist is recording where we are today… For historical context, and as record-keeping for myself or for our culture, I hope this piece will go to an institution, because we need to remember that this happened at this time,” she said.
But as much as she’s thinking about our collective past and shared struggle in the present, Rawles is also thinking about the future. “I thought a lot about my daughters being this next generation, and me having the faith that they have this strength and ability to reimagine what they want their existence to be.”
“A Certain Oblivion” by Calida Rawles is showing at Lehmann Maupin, New York, from November 9 to December 16.
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