Can you tell me a little bit about you?
Hello! My name is Rakeem Cunningham and I’m a 26 year old queer black artist based in Los Angeles. I studied at UCLA’s design and media arts department and I’m a self taught photographer. My practice revolves around portraiture and self-portraiture. I’m really interested in the black, queer body and the intersections and relationships that come along with living in my black skin. Outside of work I’m a crappy texter, Final Fantasy lover, Attack on Titan fanatic, hopeless romantic, workaholic, and lover of the ocean.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
Art quite literally saved my life. When I was in high school I didn’t have friends. I used to sit NEAR the kids I wanted to hang out with and laugh when they laughed even though they weren’t talking to me. I had gone to this private school from 1st – 6th grades and didn’t know much about anything. On top of that, I was pretty much verbally bullied and picked on. Couple all of this with the start of anxiety and self doubt and hormones, I wasn’t at a good place. My mom randomly asked me to take pictures of my sister and print them out with this cheap camera from Sam’s Club that was like 20 dollars and could only hold eight pictures. However, that changed my life. I automatically had ideas of how to make the pictures more interesting, and had a strong sense of composition. From there, I asked for a DSLR for Christmas and would walk over to the park next to my house and go deep into the equestrian trails with cardboard boxes for a tripod and my camera. I would jump and lay in bushes, cover myself in toilet paper, dumpster dive, etc. It was at that moment that I knew that I had to create. It helped me make friends, but more importantly instill a sense of self and confidence that I didn’t have before.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
My practice revolves around the experiences of queer people of color and self portraiture, acceptance of flaws, and inciting conversations about race, fatphobia, body shaming, sexual racism, desirability, and the way in which queer black bodies navigate, hold, activate, and demand space.
Over the last few months, I’ve been exploring the theme of identity and cultural heritage via texture as of late. I love to design sets or compositions as I call them, and interact with the background, These compositions are comprised of different fabrics, textures, found objects, and personal belongings purchased or found in my neighborhood, house, or relatives houses. In a way, I’m making a literal clusterfuck of my personal lineage and the cultural heritage of the San Fernando Valley and how those parts interact with queer black bodies. Honestly I have a hard time articulating it because it’s a lot of things. I’m also working through body dysmorphic issues, confidence, rejection, etc.
What is your process like?
This varies depending on the shoot honestly. Most times I just go into the studio, lock the door, get naked, and create. I usually go to thrift stores or hardware stores to prop shop as well. A lot of the process is really using my intuition and instincts as a guide. If something feels right, go for it. Typically I’ll smoke or have a glass of wine or meditate before shooting. I put on some good music, podcast, or artist lecture or interview and then zone out. It’s this weird euphoric feeling where I feel at peace. When you create it just feels right. I never want to lose that.
Since I do digital photography, shoots are pretty immediate. I have done shoots in 10 mins, I’ve done shoots in 30 mins. I’ve done shoots for 5 hours. It really depends on the concept, how tired I am, and how late I plan to shoot. Right now I’m interested in seeing how photography can be expanded beyonds the confines of a sheet of fujifilm paper. What is the relationship between photography, texture, and my queer and black identities? And how can I explore that? Clutter is also a topic of interest for me as well. I think with my family being from Alabama and Southern, they’re obsessed with cleaning. I think it’s what attracts me to make these messy compositions.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
You know, I wish I could say that when I was younger I had an art teacher or something but I didn’t. It wasn’t until very recently that I started to even engage in what I was doing conceptually. I was inspired by fashion photographers. I love Tim Walker. I think he’s the best living photographer on the planet. I’ve never met him, but he’s inspired me so much as an artist. If I could ever meet him, I’d turn into the 16 year old boy posting photographs on flickr an die in front of him.
The advice I’m glad I ignored was from people who told me to stay with fashion work even though it was destroying me. I said I refuse to shoot a model with a white t-shirt and jeans for the rest of my life. So many people said that’s what I needed to do and shut up about injustices in the fashion world and I wasn’t having it.
What is your studio like?
My studio space is this small, white cube shaped blank room. It is a mess and I’m ashamed. But that’s where I keep all the props, backdrops, etc. My mom’s boyfriend is a contractor and asked me if I’d like to have a studio space since I would shoot in the garage and I said of course. It was one of the first times I felt my family was tangibly supporting me.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
Honestly, I think navigating the art world as a QPOC is the hardest part and having to shut my mouth at times when I don’t want to. You have to figure out how to code switch. There’s always this explanation that your work will be tied to slavery or trauma if you’re black. There’s not the expectation that we can exist as fully fleshed out beings. That’s where I want to investigate. What does that mean to be a fully fleshed out person. What are the components that comprise a fleshed out queer person of color? What are our personal histories?
Also, MONEY. I think that the art world needs to be better with entry level positions. It’s crazy to me that you can sell paintings for millions, but the people selling them have student loan debt, bad credit, no car, etc.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on an upcoming show from Sept 18 – Sept 30 with my artist friend Ramon Espinosa. It’s called *Whew Chile the Ghetto!” and is based off of a meme of Nene Leaks (The Real Housewives of Atlanta) saying “Whew Child the Ghetto!” being in a place where she felt either unsafe or not welcoming. We’re using that as a metaphor for being a QPOC in mostly white art institutions and what those relationships look like. I work at a gallery comprised of mostly white artists. We’re working out these grievances and micro-aggressions you deal with on a daily basis and how to translate that visually.
I’m also looking for gallery representation so I’ve spent a lot of time day dreaming of show concepts haha.
Anything else you would like to add?
I had an exhibition at the Littman + White gallery in Portland, Oregon last year around this time called “White Artists Don’t Have to Make Work About Racial Identity” in which I said that black artists are always expected to make work with this racial or cultural significance but it’s never expected of white artists and I think we have to look at the ways in which we box in artists of color and fight to expand the definition of what art from communities of color is allowed to be.