“It was about five years ago when water entered my life,” says Los Angeles-based painter Calida Rawles. Pregnant with her third daughter, she began swimming. “It started as exercise, and then it became almost like a therapy. I learned how to really swim as an adult. My breathing became more meditative. I felt so much better in the water.”
Soon after, she embarked on creating the body of work for which she has subsequently become celebrated: gorgeous, photorealistic paintings of black figures immersed in turquoise waters.
Rawles says she feels that her compositions are, above all, celebratory. “In my culture, seeing black bodies in water is special.” While for her personally, swimming might be a tool for self-care—a means of escaping both the immediate demands of family life and, more broadly, the pressures of contemporary black life in America—black bodies have not historically been associated with swimming pools. There are complex reasons why—even today, sixty-four percent of African American children are not able to swim—and these are rooted in racial segregation, Jim Crow laws and economic disparity. A painting such as Little Swimmer (2016), showing a young black girl surging beneath the surface of the water, is therefore a vision of hope and freedom.