Rakeem Cunningham is the hero this city needs. Whether he’s armored in a cloud-patterned haori, a metallic fuchsia leotard, or a magisterial cape fashioned from a crimson bedsheet, Cunningham looks every inch the bold-as-brass hero—even when he’s half-naked—across the seven photographic self-portraits of this solo exhibition. Throughout these mise-en-scènes, the artist—either smoldering, brooding, or voguing before the camera with poise and finesse—is armed, variously, with pool noodles, a crucifix–cum–bow and arrow, or a homespun war staff with a triangular head. Displayed on a single shelf alongside the framed photos are a pair of video games and an Afro pick. This sacred-looking tableau is a part of Heroes Catch the Holy Ghost, 2021, a sprawling installation that features many of the props and costumes from Cunningham’s pictures—a polychromatic homage to fandom and fantasy—which are hung floor to ceiling in an ecstatically cacophonous array.
Cunningham grew up in the San Fernando Valley as a queer Black kid with a rich imagination—one suspects the path he took to finding himself wasn’t exactly easy. In his work, I feel heart and a deep reverence for play, qualities that surely allowed the bravery and style of his inner world to take on the ugly exterior one that lies outside all our bedroom windows. Cunningham’s assertively sexy poses and creative rejiggering of everyday objects infuse his art with an essential form of joy that is vital in fighting the forces of banality and evil: We can be heroes, and for more than just one day.