Rakeem Cunningham, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist and photographer, is capturing hearts and minds with his vibrant and introspective works. His 2023 solo exhibition, Black Chrysalis, at the Schlomer Haus Gallery, offered a compelling narrative on the importance of mental health and safe spaces.  In a society often marred by stigma and discrimination, his art inspires others to embrace their authenticity and celebrate the beauty of diversity. 

His photographs champion mental health and create safe spaces for expression. Through his colourful photo montages and insightful self-portraits, Cunningham navigates themes of self-acceptance, resilience and the pursuit of joy. reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Good Health and Well-Being. 

Photograph of Rakeem Cunningham. Image courtesy of Ochi Gallery.

Cunningham's journey as an artist has been deeply intertwined with his struggles. He was bullied in school due to his “nerdy” interests, identity as a queer Black man, and OCD diagnosis, which forced him to navigate the complexities of mental health early on. 

Cunningham views art as a means of self-empowerment and healing. His studio serves as a sanctuary, allowing him to reclaim control of his narrative and focus on his well-being, shielded from the negativity and judgmental gazes of others. 

Alter Ego by Rakeem Cunningham. Image courtesy of Rakeem Cunningham’s website.

At its core, Cunningham's art is a celebration of mental health and self-care, since he first began art-making as a form of self-therapy. By bravely confronting his mental health struggles and talking about them through his artwork, Cunningham shatters the stigma around mental illness and sparks conversations about mental wellness. Through his collages and self-portraits, Cunningham invites viewers to confront their insecurities and embrace the transformative power of self-love and acceptance, a message he wishes to convey in his piece Chrysalis

Cunningham believes that no matter what people’s struggles are, joy and healing are within personal reach. Navigate through the darkness, a person can also do so by sitting still with themselves and listening to what their thoughts have to say, much like being in a Chrysalis, one from which they’ll emerge, feeling refreshed and anew, as if they were a caterpillar that has transformed into a butterfly.

Chrysalis by Rakeem Cunningham. Image courtesy of Rakeem Cunningham’s website.

His solo exhibition, Black Chrysalis draws from his extensive archive of images, where he uses collage to seamlessly blend his photographs with drawings, much like his piece, Colors of the River. Each layer of paint, photograph and fabric serves as a visual testament to his emotional landscape, from childhood memories to the complexities of identity and self-expression.

With vibrant patterns and symbolic motifs, Cunningham invites his viewers to embark on a journey of self-reflection and discovery, as seen in how he embraces himself in Colors of the River. His pieces are a game of associations that allows his work to depart from something personal to the artist to be personal to the viewer.

Colors of the River by Rakeem Cunningham. Image courtesy of Rakeem Cunningham’s website.

The artist’s photographs are characterized by his intricate sets and immersive environments where his narratives intersect with pop culture and nostalgia. This can be seen in pieces like Alter Ego, where he incorporates fabrics, textures and imagery reminiscent of his childhood. This creative process allows Cunningham to also pay homage to his roots and celebrate the resilience of marginalized communities by adding symbols and colours specific to those identities. In Alter Ego, this manifests as a rainbow, an easy-to-recognize symbol of the international LGBTQ+ community that he is a part of. Here, his work reminds viewers of the importance of creating inclusive and affirming spaces for all without exception.

Cunningham's practice is epitomized in his exploration of vulnerability and self-acceptance. His self-portraits are intimate since not only does he work with his own body, but he also seldom appears nude in them. Here, as a Black queer artist, Cunningham challenges societal norms and celebrates the beauty of diversity. 

Kandinsky by Rakeem Cunningham. Image courtesy of Rakeem Cunningham’s website.

You've successfully subscribed to Arts Help
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Great! You've successfully signed up.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.