Calida Rawles Dreams A Fresh Look At Lilith

Lilith is a complicated figure by any account. She emerges, serpentine, from the mists of Babylon, darts like a hare through Jewish apocrypha, and becomes a blank canvas onto which church fathers and rebellious teens alike project their fears and hopes.

Dubious practitioners tug on her like a tattered doll, asserting ownership while missing (or conveniently ignoring) the fact that Lilith, consistent with her mythology, refuses to be owned or projected upon. Lilith is an idea, born of the earth and possessed of humanity’s divine spark. Lilith is one of us – all of us – the first and forsaken, and possessed of all our flaws and joys.

If I’m being honest, I don’t resonate with most incarnations of Lilith I’ve seen. They’ve been touched by too many hands using too many sloppily mixed mythologies, like a toddler invariably mixing fingerpaints until there is only a dull, uniform brown made of everything and representing nothing.

That’s why Calida Rawles’s collection, A Dream for My Lilith, is so refreshing. Not because she’s trying hard to project an image of what she thinks Lilith is supposed to be, but rather because she engages with this mythology on her own terms and elaborates it into something much more special – an emotional treatise, considering Lilith as a woman, and a healer of women.

A Dream for My Lilith expands on the legacy of Lilith, the mythological figure deemed the first wife of Adam, towards the notion of liberation and strength held in the bodies of black women and girls. Lilith is repositioned from a malevolent spirit at the antithesis of womanhood to a sovereign being who drifts in a realm of therapeutic possibilities.

Radiating My Grace by Calida Rawles (2019)

The fact is that virtually any concept you have of Lilith as an entity is heavily fictionalized. Scholars paw through theological dumpsters like raccoons looking for cold french fries. Practitioners make lore up wholesale and then try to pass it off as fact, covering their mouth and mumbling when it’s time to cite their sources. There just isn’t a lot out there. Lilith was conceived, like most Judeo-Christian mythologies, out of fear, and the need to reject and control. Much like all of our familiar religious foils, she was stitched together from the goddesses and real figures of the day as a way to personify and magnify those fears.

Very few of these were done thoroughly. They were meant to make sense in the day and whether through design or happy accident, the myths that made them relevant faded into obscurity, eventually replaced by their church-father approved cariacatures. Among peers, Lilith is perhaps one of the least developed. An idea that was toyed with but ultimately discarded, an editorial afterthought.

In that way, she was even more of a blank canvas for us to project upon. We had this uncooked idea of a woman who was Adam’s equal, and refused to submit to his will or God’s, and much like Lucifer became a de facto symbol for people who also rejected submission.

Naturally the male gaze and ministrations of mediocre practitioners would take this most superficial of engagement and paint her as a horny succubus who exists to satisfy men who don’t get enough sex. This is incredibly boring and a mythology you could also project onto a microwaved pumpkin with a hole poked in it.

Simultaneously, at the other end of the spectrum, she became a major figure in feminism, for obvious reasons. Whether you thought Lilith was good or bad depended on where you stood Biblically, and how you thought she was good depended on whether you were an oppressor or the oppressed.

A Dream for My Lilith is a departure from this sort of iconic jockeying, and instead treats with a vision for what Lilith could be; what Lilith could be to Black women and Black bodies in particular.

Ride This Wave Of Mine by Calida Rawles (2019)

As spiritually nourishing as the paintings are on their own terms, it as just as inspiring to me to see Lilith unmoored from her usual contexts, and acknowledged, embraced, and invited into the sphere of divine femininity rather than being used as a bone dry political prop or stroke material for boring, nothing men.

If we are to embrace the mythology of Lilith, we have to understand her holistically; not as a lone figure in a tiny context, but as a self-contained ecology of goddesses and monsters, demons and sex workers. A hyperobject forged from the fear of “loose women” and disobedient wives. She is a swirling storm of sexist thought, the terror that only small men have of losing their grip on control. She is a nightmare wrapped in a dream and her most terrible power is autonomy.

Lilith, at the core of her story, loves herself. Respects herself. Suffers in order to own her joy. Identifies with others who suffer and seeks to bring them succor. She will not be cowed by anyone, even the Demiurge, but at the core of Lilith’s essence is love. Love for herself. Love for her autonomy. Love for those displaced from their will.

That’s what makes Calida Rawles’s work so special. It is a love letter to those who have suffered, those who will suffer, and the text of that letter is that there is beauty, grace and healing that transcends and defies the projections, fears and desires of the world of small men.

Calida Rawles in her studio, 2020.GLENN WILSON/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LEHMANN MAUPIN, NEW YORK, HONG KONG, SEOUL, AND LONDON

Calida Rawles (b. 1976, Wilmington, Delaware) received her B.A. in Art at Spelman College and her M.A. in Painting at New York University. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the LACMA Inglewood Art + Film Lab, Inglewood, CA; the San Francisco Arts Commission, San Francisco, CA; FC Fine Arts, Fullerton, CA; Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Papillon Art, Los Angeles, CA; and Rush Arts Gallery, New York, NY. Rawles has a concurrent presentation at Frieze Los Angeles Art Fair in February 2020.