Profile: Chakaia Booker (1953-)

Chakaia Booker is an American sculptor who explores race, gender, class, and labor in her work. Booker is best known for creating expressive installation art from recycled tires and other found objects, as well as for her personal style of wearable sculpture. Her work has appeared as part of group and solo exhibitions in galleries and outdoor public spaces across the U.S. and internationally. Booker lives and works in New York City.

Early life & education

Chakaia Booker was born in Newark, New Jersey and raised in East Orange. As a teenager, she learned to sew from her grandmother, aunt, and sister. Rather than use patterns to create standard garments, Booker says that she “preferred non-conventional patterns and experimenting in other ways” to create her own fit and style of clothing.

Booker received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Rutgers University in 1976. She then moved to the East Village neighborhood of New York City as a ceramics apprentice. During that period, she also began studying tai chi and African dance, which she practices alongside sculpture as part of her creative method. She received her Master of Fine Arts from the City College of New York (CUNY) in 1993.

Career

Like her sculptures, Booker is a carefully assembled and richly layered individual who sees herself as a sculpture through her tasks of dressing, sewing, cooking, and other daily activities which she considers to be art forms in their own rights.

Beginning in the 1980s Booker created wearable sculptures which she could place herself inside and utilize as clothing. “The wearable garment sculpture was about getting energy and feeling from a desired design.” Booker continues to create a wearable sculpture in response to the materials which she uses in her current work. From her creations of wearable sculptures in the 1980s, Booker began to create work from discarded materials which she found at construction sites. These found materials each had its own purpose, history, and use which she finds interesting. This search for discarded materials brings us to the “rubber tire” from which her most notorious work is created.

Booker began working with rubber tires in the early 1990s and presently continues to work in this medium. The various tread patterns, colors, and widths which the tires possess create a palette for Booker similar to the palette of painter. Booker’s utilization of tires was considered to be an “aesthetic response to the urban landscape of Northern New Jersey.” The rubber and tires were transformed into fluid materials giving them a new life and energy. The tires represented metaphors which satisfied aesthetic, political, and economic concerns. Lucinda Masson notes that Booker’s use of recycled tires can remind us of how modes of transportation have changed since the industrial age.

Booker’s work has layers and layers of meaning loaded with social concerns throughout. The sculptures which were created with the tires are said to address African Americanidentity. The black tires symbolize the strength of African American identity while the color nuances are meant to evoke the complexities of the black humans application. “The varying pigments ranging from blue-black, deep grey and brown, sometimes stamped with blue or red as well as textures- matte, smooth, glossy, cracked, game encrusted represent the range of African American skin tones.” “Salvaging such defiant beauty from scraps of resilient black, rubber [provides] a compelling metaphor of African American survival in the modern world.”

Her current work presents a level of acknowledgment to her African heritage and its influential artwork. The tread pattern of the tires in her work represent the scarification and body painting which was once and still is present in particular African cultures. As in a piece from 1994 a mask which was “untitled” “similar to  Picasso, Booker appears to draw from distorted facial features of West African Tribal marks is a less quotation of formal images and a greater assertion of African American identity and aesthetic lineage.” Tread patterns and repetitive geometric shapes throughout Booker’s work are reminiscent of traditional African textiles. “Overall the tires characterize, symbolize, and or signify a toughness, linked to the will of the African diaspora for continued survival .

Although the representation of African American identity seems very prominent throughout Booker’s work it is by no means her sole concern. “Booker’s work calls attention to slavery, industrial revolution, working class, factory labor and even addresses the qualities of rubber.” Booker’s “Echoes in Black” from the 2000 Whitney Biennial deals with scarification both emotional and physical that people go through in life through class, race, and labor. As for her piece “No More Milk and Cookies” from 2003, this work “questions our commercially driven society and what happens when consumption is prohibited.” Her 2001 piece “Wench (Wrench) III” is a surrealistic sculpture which subverts a very masculine mechanic’s wrench into a feminine feather boa. The piece “Spirit Hunter” is reminiscent of images of life and death as well as a feminist approach to birth and sexuality. Booker’s concerns throughout her work are culturally diverse in regards to mankind and her explorations into the endeavors of the human race allow for her a better understanding of situations than perhaps an ordinary person might endure.

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