“Whew chile, the ghetto,” NeNe Leakes says to herself as her high-heeled foot juts out of her Range Rover and hits the pavement of Atlanta’s inner city. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment grinding in the gears of the drama machine that is The Real Housewives franchise.
But, for artist Rakeem Cunningham, it was in that almost milliseconds-long line that he found the concept, and the title, for his new show with fellow artist Ramon Espinosa at the Tag Gallery in Los Angeles. “I thought it would be an appropriate title [for the show] because it’s taking the concept of her being in this place where she doesn’t feel comfortable or this feeling of not belonging,” he says of Leakes meme-worthy line. “We thought we’d take that feeling of being a queer person of color in the art world or trying to break into the art world and talk about how uncomfortable that can be.”
On display through September 30, ‘whew chile, the ghetto!’ brings the ghetto to the gallery thanks to a series of stunning self-portraits featuring Cunningham starkly posed against his DIY backdrops of carefully curated found objects. “Someone told me that your life is the sum total of all of your experiences up to that moment,” he explained over the phone from Los Angeles. “So, with the sets and photographs, I was implementing that concept.” Wrinkled American flags, McDonald's burger boxes, anime characters from Yu-Gi-Oh and Naruto, and backdrops fit for high school photo day meld together in a Where’s Waldo of moments from Cunningham’s queer youth.
Juxtaposed against his nude or jockstrapped body, they have the effect of stamping his lonely memories of s-curl hair treatment boxes and Final Fantasy X characters with the modern day confidence that he exudes in every frame. For the fashion photographer turned artist, it’s both an homage and a continuation of the self-portraits of his past though, this time, he’s traded in the tripod made of a “stack of cardboard boxes taped to each other” for a more suitable setup.
We called up Cunningham as he prepared for the opening reception set for Thursday, September 20 to talk about Final Fantasy’s twink energy, the evil of Taurus’s, and his life as an Instagram thirst trap.
OUT: How did you feel when you first head Nene Leakes say, “Whew chile, the ghetto!”
Rakeem Cunningham: I was confused as to what she was talking about. (Laughs) I first saw it out of context but when I realized what she was talking about, I thought it was hilarious. I thought it would be an appropriate title [for the show] because it’s taking the concept of her being in this place where she doesn’t feel comfortable or this feeling of not belonging.
We thought we’d take that feeling of being a queer person of color in the art world or trying to break into the art world and talk about how uncomfortable that can be. The show is literally on the second floor of my job. It’s interesting because I’m in this space where the artists are majority white and I don’t always feel comfortable, but I’m putting out this literal shrine to my past upstairs. It’s about asserting yourself in these spaces where you don’t necessarily feel like you belong, but you’ve contributed to the history of them.
That’s going to be quite the water cooler conversation. It’s primarily self-portraits, right?
Yeah, it’s pretty much all self-portraits other than pictures of the sets that I did. The reason I started doing self-portraiture was because when I was younger, I just didn’t have friends. (Laughs) Someone told me that your life is the sum total of all of your experiences up to that moment, so with the sets and photographs, I was implementing that concept. The things that are behind my body in that moment are all of the things that have led up to where I am right now — I thought it would be a good way to pay homage to that.
I just have to say, I also spent a lot of time alone taking self-portraits because I didn’t have many friends. I have so many old photos of myself from when I would go in the bathroom for two hours and do a photoshoot.
Yes! (Laughs) The funny thing is, I actually have one of those photos that you’re talking about in one of the installations and one of the first point-and-shoot cameras I used to do those with. I’ve noticed this with a lot of queer artists, that’s a big part of our identity growing up because self-portraiture is exploring your body in a way that you’re told you aren’t supposed to. Art gave us the outlet to do that.
Self-portraits let us take control of our identities and bodies when we couldn’t really do that publicly.
Exactly. It was this thing of performing a “straightness” before with the self-portraiture. It’s not actually drastically different seeing what I was doing before I came out and then after because there have always been these queer signifiers there. Before I even came out to people, some of the pictures were my way of saying, “Hey I’m a little bit gay.”
When I was 16, I used to get cardboard boxes and tape them to each other and stack them up because I didn’t have a job or tripod. I would walk to the park with this stack of boxes taped to each other and set them in the dirt and jump in bushes and take pictures. It was a really cathartic experience.
In your portraits, you have such a wide variety of props. How do you choose those pieces?
The way that the props were chosen — at least for this specific project — was I went a bunch of local thrift and ninety-nine cent stores. Local fabric stores and swap meets and that sort of thing, or stores that I grew up with. I was getting things that reminded me of childhood or my area. For example, I have a cloth that covers one of the photographs made out of bandana patterns. When I was younger, I used to be obsessed with bandanas because for me, it was this symbol of masculinity. (Laughs) I would get stuff like that or different sheets that reminded me of the backgrounds you’d have in school photographs. I would get tablecloths that we used at birthday parties.
It’s paying homage and paying respect to the area that I grew up in. The title plays into this too because it’s like, “Whew chile, the ghetto,” but it’s bringing the ghetto to an art gallery space and honoring it.
What’s your favorite prop you’ve put in a photo?
That’s hard. Fuck. There are two. One of them is an s-curl box. It’s a treatment that black men put on their hair to make their hair curly a little bit. I used to do that all the time with my aunt when I was younger and I kept the boxes from it and kept the boxes from when I used to dye my hair blonde in college. Those are connected and really interesting to me because hair has always been such a personal journey for me. Looking at my hair in photographs, you can tell where I am on my journey to wokeness.
The other thing is this random poster that I have from Final Fantasy X when it first came out of the main heroine and the main villain getting married. It’s representative of her breaking out of this marriage that she’s being forced into and it’s a sign of independence, but I have it taped to a photograph of my mom and my mom’s pictures at home of black women dancing. I wanted it to representative of women’s liberation and paying homage to the women in my life who didn’t have men there to support them. All of the women in my family were single mothers. Little things like that pay respect to the people I have in my life through the things I’ve experienced — through video games and manga and anime.
It’s funny that you mention Final Fantasy X because I remember playing that game and being so attracted to the main character, Titus. He was such a little twink.
Right? Right! That’s what I find so crazy because a lot of these things did inform my queer experiences. There was an older character in the game that I was really attracted to.
Was it the older guy with one arm?
Yes! With one arm and the sword. Auron is his name. I was like, “Oh shit well wait. He’s kind of hot.” Those were my queer experiences growing up. It was video games and nerd shit. Those were things that were worthy of being honored in a gallery space. I didn’t grow up in art history so for me, Dragon Ball Z was on the same level as people who grew up with artist parents.
Video games were huge for me growing up. I’m sure there were plenty of characters at the time I found hot — or even the Nickelodeon show Danny Phantom. He was hot! It’s so funny what we pick out when we’re younger to fixate on as queer kids.
I feel like a lot of that had a lot to do with our experiences. I don’t know what yours was like, but for me, it always had to do with friendship and loneliness. The things I gravitated towards were things that focused on that. There are a lot of Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy references because those are games about friendship. A lot of these games that people laugh at and think are entertainment were really catalysts to honing my critical thinking skills and forming my identity.
Tell me about working with Ramon Espinosa. Why’d you pick them to do this exhibition with you?
There were a few reasons. I really love Ramon’s work and they’re the person who has been pushing me to examine why I’m making work. Who my work is for or why I do certain things. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for Ramon so I figured the least I could do to offer the space. Ramon has really important things to say that aren’t really talked about a lot. The show’s emphasis on the art world and how it treats people of color comes from Ramon’s work. Mine has it but because of where the show is, Ramon’s work is directly in response to that and a lot of the pieces were made in response to certain critiques that they got.
Growing up, did you get told you couldn’t be an artist or any certain thing because of your identity?
I didn’t decide I wanted to be an artist or pursue art until this year. I was told I wouldn’t succeed in things because of what I looked like and who I was, but not in the art world. One thing I’ve never tolerated is people telling me I can’t do something. I don’t like being limited to boxes and when people tell me that, I get really competitive to prove them wrong. It’s the Virgo rising in me.
We’re going to have to get into horoscopes now.
Wait what are you?
I don’t know anything about Capricorns. Are y’all okay? Are you shady?
We’re just very stubborn.
Oh okay, so that means you’re selfish. Got it. I’m right and you’re wrong. Got it.
Do you know anything about Taurus’s though?
Oh, you know what though? We don’t have to talk about those devils because they’re evil.
Taurus?! I’m a Taurus rising and Gemini moon.
Oh, I’ll take that because I’m a Gemini moon too. That’s okay. We’re not proud but it is what it is. My ex was a triple Scorpio.
Oh god, how did you survive?
I… we didn’t. (Laughs)
Who is your favorite pop culture gay icon?
The answer is Beyoncé and will always be Beyoncé. Actually, I’m going to give you two answers. One is Beyoncé and that’s self-explanatory, but the second one will be Kurama from Yu Yu Hakusho because he planted a seed in me — pun intended — and it is thanks to him that I have germinated into the gay that I am now and I am thankful for that. He was Troye Sivan’s “Bloom” before Troye Sivan was Troye Sivan. (Laughs)
I have to say I do love Troye’s bottoming anthem.
Honestly, the whole album is a bop. The whole thing goes off. The visuals we’ve been getting from this album? I live. Listen, it takes a lot for me to give white gay artists props and he’s doing the damn thing.
I wanted to talk to you about the Instagram Thirst Trap list back in January. I never got to ask, but was your response to being included on it?
That was interesting because it goes back to what we were talking about before about being put in a box. I was actually really happy about it and thought it was great and really exciting, but some of my friends were like, “That’s so beneath you. You’re an artist. You don’t need to be on that.” I was like, calm down. I think there’s this misconception that if you’re an artist, you have to talk through your art and speak through that. You can’t participate in popular culture. I want to feel sexy too.
Part of my work is body acceptance and feeling confident about yourself. I was happier that the confidence was showing through to people. I really do feel confident about myself so seeing that and having that validated was great. Honestly, part of me sometimes feels like that little 16-year-old boy in high school that didn’t have friends so seeing yourself on a list like that is pretty crazy. As corny as this is, it’s surreal that this stuff is happening and that people are interested in my work. It’s crazy looking back however many years ago when I was sitting my camera bag on red ant hills and now I’m showing for two weeks in a gallery space on Wilshire Boulevard.
Rakeem Cunningham and Ramon Espinosa's 'whew chile, the ghetto!' exhibition is on display Sept. 18 through Sept. 30, 2018, at the Tag Gallery, 5458 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA. Click here for more information about the show.