In Calida Garcia Rawles’ painting “Water Dancer #1,” a black man in a white shirt lies face down in a clear pool of water. His body creates a ripple effect, and his hands stretch upward. Focused on the moment the subject becomes fully immersed in the water, the image is quietly potent, forcing viewers to question if they are observing a death or a meditation.
If the image sounds familiar, it’s because the painting is the cover image for New York Times best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest work of the same name, The Water Dancer. The work was commissioned by Coates after a visit to Rawles’ LA studio in late 2017. During the visit, the writer was taken by the many images of black men, women, and children floating or swimming in pools. The Water Dancer, which centers on the life of a slave in mid-1800's Virginia, uses water as a central theme.
To create the “Water Dancer” paintings Rawles studied Coates’ essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” The author cried upon receiving the work.
A multi-disciplinary artist, Rawles began painting as a teen in Wilmington, Deleware. She cultivated her art through college at and graduate school, earning a B.A. at Spellman College and an M.A. at New York University. Her work has centered on issues of race, gender, and history, through a contemporary lens.
Her most recent series tackle those themes with a focus on water, the medium that carried black bodies to the Americas during slavery and served as a cultural battleground during the Jim Crow South and Civil Rights Era.
The paintings submerge bodies in the water with fractals swirling around them to give the paintings an abstract feel. In some pieces, bodies look more like landmasses. In others, it's hard to tell where the bodies begin and the water ends. Rawles’ goal is to present narratives that feel real to viewers and open their minds to the complexities of black trauma. Her success in bringing those narratives to light has placed her in conversation with contemporaries Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker.
Coates and Rawles plan to collaborate on a series of events where Coates will read his book and Rawles will display her work.
For more information about Calida Garcia Rawles’ click here.