meet an artist mondayIn an aggressively delightful mixture of conceptual cosplay, collage, installation, video, photography, painting, and performance, Rakeem Cunningham creates multivalent portraits of himself and his eclectic community of subcultures—queer Black folks, role-play and video gamers, anime enthusiasts, neurodivergent creators, and other adventurous souls. His use of cascading palettes and all-over patterning combined with tenderly confrontational and firmly self-possessed figures evoke manga-infused surrealism and high-fashion editorial in equal measure. But for Cunningham, despite the validation of joy, fantasy, and playtime, the process of creating these elaborate and ornate tableaux is also a serious self-care measure—one that embodies ideas around psychological healing and honoring the instincts of the wild imagination.

rakeem cunningham

Rakeem Cunningham: Alter Ego, 2023 (Courtesy of Schlomer Haus)

L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist? 

RAKEEM CUNNINGHAM: I first knew I was an artist when I was 16 years old. My mom handed me a disposable camera that could hold 12 images without a memory card. She asked me if I could take photos of my sister in the backyard. From that moment, I knew that’s what I was meant to be doing.


What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about? 

My work is about the intersections of fantasy, childhood, play, and mental health. I like to think of my art practice as a way of healing my inner child and to address traumas I’ve experienced using the things that brought me joy when I was younger. I mostly take self-portraits or photograph friends within sets and installations. The backgrounds usually consist of household materials, cosplay props, and fabrics.


What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist? 

If I wasn’t involved in the arts, I think I would love to study history. One thing that has inspired my practice of the years is mythology. When I’m driving or taking a walk, I normally listen to video essays about the mythologies of different cultures or the history of how the most random things are made, or hour-long historical fact videos.

Schlomer Haus Rakeem Cunningham Overwhelm 2023

Rakeem Cunningham: Overwhelm, 2023 (Courtesy of Schlomer Haus)

Did you go to art school? Why/Why not? 

I did! I went to UCLA for fine art my first year and transferred to the Design & Media Arts program my second year. My journey is like so many others in that I left school in 2014 and actually graduated in 2020 during the pandemic. It’s funny because while in school, I always said I wanted to work in fashion photography and shoot Vogue covers. Galleries were the farthest thing from my mind! I think everyone has their own path and no two people’s paths look the same.


Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere? 

I was actually born and raised in L.A. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Pacoima. My family never really left L.A. and I’ve just started traveling and seeing what the world has to offer! However, Los Angeles will always be my home.


When was your first show? 

My first solo exhibition was in 2017 at the Littman and White gallery in Portland, Oregon. The gallery is a part of PSU and the exhibition was called White Artists Don’t Have to Make Work About Racial Identity. At that time I remember feeling so frustrated that whenever I talked to someone about work I was creating, there was this assumption that it was always about the struggles of racism. It felt like I wasn’t allowed to experience any other emotions other than pain because of racism and discrimination and I wanted to talk about it. I did a radio interview about the exhibition and I remember these white college students came up to me at the reception and were pissed. That’s when I realized the power that I had as an artist.

Rakeem Cunningham, Hero, 2021, archival inkjet print, 24 x 16 inc (Courtesy of OCHI Gallery)

When is/was your current/most recent/next show or project? 

Right now there’s some really exciting projects happening. I’m having a solo exhibition at Schlomer Haus Gallery in San Francisco titled Black Chrysalis. I also am a part of Queer Threads that is up at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles; and next year I’ll be having a new solo exhibition at OCHI Gallery in Los Angeles.


What artist living or dead would you most like to show or work with? 

There’s so many! I can’t say just one. I’d say four artists: Mickalene Thomas, Ernie Barnes, Aaron Fowler, and Jesse Morsberger. Aaron Fowler’s two works at the 2018 edition of Made in L.A. at the Hammer changed my life and the way I see art. Mickalene Thomas has such a throughline between all the mediums she works in and I find that so awe inspiring. Ernie Barnes is one of, if not the only, artist whose work I saw around my own home; and Jesse Morsberger I found out about recently on Instagram. He paints scenes from different video games of my childhood like Final Fantasy and the Legend of Zelda. His work is so healing to me, it’d be an honor to show with or work with him!

Schlomer Haus Rakeem Cunningham Chrysalis 2023

Rakeem Cunningham: Chrysalis, 2023 (Courtesy of Schlomer Haus)

Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what? 

I actually listen to a TON of lore videos! One of my favorite things is to listen to the lores of different video game series, books, television shows, and movies. Recently (and by recently I mean since it came out a year ago) I’ve been listening to Renaissance by Beyonce, Caroline Polachek, Paramore, and Hikaru Utada.


Website and social media handles, please!

IG: @rakeemc

Bio Photo

Rakeem Cunningham


















































































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