Black Chrysalis: The Works of Rakeem Cunningham

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Schlomer Haus Gallery, San Francisco // July 07, 2023 – August 26, 2023

Schlomer Haus Gallery is pleased to present Black Chrysalis, a solo exhibition from Los Angeles-based multimedia artist and photographer Rakeem Cunningham. The collection was created during a period when Cunningham began to prioritize joy and pleasure in the studio, representing an important shift in outlook from the artist.

Often bullied in school – whether it be for his “nerdy” tendencies, his interest in manga and anime, his identity as a queer black man, or his OCD – Cunningham reclaims ownership of his journey, his mental health, and happiness in the studio, which has evolved over the years into a safe space for healing and play. Cunningham proudly recalls some wisdom his sister shared during this struggle, “Your self-esteem is the esteem of your motherfuckin’ self, so how are you going to let someone else determine that.” Cunningham likens this era of growth to the moment when a chrysalis darkens in color, just before the butterfly is ready to emerge.

Black Chrysalis features new visions of time, body, and space, in the form of six unique collages that begin with Cunningham’s complex layering of his own photographs. Historically, a photographer would select an image to print from a contact sheet of all the images on one roll of film, filing the unselected images into their archive. Unlocking the last decade of his unselected image archive, Cunningham found freedom in stitching together fantastical spaces for his younger selves to play.

With all of his previous works liberated from digital archives and timelines, Cunningham realized he wanted to push the boundaries of photography even further by incorporating his drawings. Cunningham’s drawings feature repetitive mark making and bold color blocking that offer insight into his daily emotional landscapes. “I realized that I could visualize my intrusive thoughts with color and repeating shapes, which helps me release anxiety. I can accept and manage a drawing of purple zig zags, instead of pretending the feelings I associate them with don’t exist. I’m celebrating myself in all my complex glory.”

Full of intricate patterns and laden with meaning, each layered element in Cunningham’s collages work to tell a story. From the classroom-style wavy rainbow borders – a recurring symbol of childhood that reminds Cunningham to balance creating safe spaces with broadening his horizons – to the spirals which are a physical representation of negative intrusive thoughts, the resulting work embraces the highs and lows of life.

Black Chrysalis is evocative and relatable, bringing Cunningham’s experience to a diverse audience, providing comfort and companionship to viewers. “One of the goals of this body of work is to celebrate the courage it takes to be open to change – to not be afraid to fail, grow into your authentic self, to take risks!” said Cunningham. “For me it is important to feel proud to take up space and to share that joy and acceptance with others. Butterflies do not hide their wings and neither should we.”

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