The Language of Life: A Conversation with Chakaia Booker

Reconstructed Elements, 2002. Rubber tire and wood, 32 x 36 x 31 in. Photo: Courtesy Dietmar Busse, Marlborough Gallery, NY.

Chakaia Booker’s voice is so earthy that one may miss her easy way of pointing to the big picture. Her oeuvre is loaded with social concerns that come from the gut and the heart, merging flavors from the American South and the American North. Spirit Hunter, Self-Portrait, Homage to Thy Mother, It’s So Hard to Be Green, and Repugnant Rapunzel (Let Down Your Hair) are notably visceral and, like a good fairy tale, both literal and figurative.

To realize her projects, Booker has converted tires and rubber into fluent materials, and she has woven their textures, treads, smells, scars, burn and skid marks, and hues into symphonic compositions. Booker’s oeuvre indirectly calls attention to slavery, the industrial revolution, the working class, and factory labor, and more directly it addresses the remarkable qualities of rubber. All of Booker’s materials to date—rubber, fiber, wood, metal, food, and furniture, to name some of the main ingredients in her ever-expanding artistic vocabulary—remind us of their origins, history, and use. It is not exaggerating to say that Booker’s work often alludes to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

Booker earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from Rutgers University in 1976 and a Master of Fine Arts degree from City College of New York (CUNY) in 1993. She has had solo exhibitions at the Neuberger Museum of Art, the Akron Museum of Art, and Marlborough Gallery, and her work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She participated in the Whitney Biennial in 2000, in the “Twentieth Century American Sculpture” exhibition at the White House in 1996, and in many shows in the United States, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Booker has received awards from Anonymous Was A Woman in 2000, The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 2002. In 2003, spring and fall exhibitions, at the Storm King Sculpture Park and Marlborough Gallery respectively, will offer viewers a new generation of her works. Booker is in demand as a speaker; recently she lectured at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender and School of Art and Design and also at venues in New Orleans and Colorado.

Echoes in Black (Industrial Cicatrization), 1997. Rubber tires, wood, metal, husks, fruit, and bone, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy Neuberger Museum of Art.

Jan Garden Castro: Some of your reviewers have found rubber a potent metaphor for post-colonial issues: class, race, and labor. What are your associations with rubber?

Chakaia Booker: Echoes in Black (Industrial Cicatrization) deals with scarification—the processes of emotional and physical scarring that people go through as they live: class, race, and labor, which are universal problems. This was part of the 1997 “Revelations” exhibition at the Neuberger Museum. Cultural diversity in this society is like tire elements: tires that have been under an explosive moment may retain wonderful visual patterns that come about between the layering of metal treads and the rubber-gluing agents. Sometimes it’s rust stains; other times, it’s the textures, the treads that remain, the movement and coloration that come to me when picking up a piece.

As a conceptual analogy, I usually start with the rubber tire itself. It’s about mobility, growth. They’ve used it on the moon. In a large way, it’s our method of communication. For example, a wall or relief using old tires suggests archaeological finds and the deciphering of patterns and textures into new languages or new symbols. The tire-making industry says that the patterns in the tires function to “wick away water” in wet weather. But where did the idea come from? Where does information begin? These same patterns may have been a means of communication some time in the past; they may translate into a way of writing, a language or physical tool that actually performs. Something of an analogy for this can be seen in the translation of pictographs into jewelry. My intention is to translate materials into imagery that will stimulate people to consider themselves as a part of their environment—one piece of it. Whether I use an architectural format or something to look at, I believe art should dialogue with viewers.

The Mother—Daughter Competition, 1993. Aluminum and steel, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy Nelson Tejada.

JGC: Could you talk about the women in your family and their various influences on you? You’ve said that the women in your family all sewed.

CB: My grandmother, my aunt, and my sister were people who sewed. Growing up, I remember seeing my aunt and my sister design or create things for themselves, family members, and friends. They used patterns as a basis to develop their ideas, but I preferred non-conventional patterns and experimenting in other ways. As a teenager, I was more interested in resolving problems that came about—my arms were very long, I was very tall, and my body shape was different. Things that I liked didn’t come in the exact sizes that I wanted. In order to make these things work for me, I would deconstruct a garment by chopping off a hemline to lengthen the sleeves, nipping, tearing, shearing, adding on to reshape garments to fit my needs.

When I produce wearable art pieces, it’s not about the exact buttons or matching thread, it’s about getting that energy and feeling for the desired design. You need a foundation of rules, discipline, and structure, but rules are made to be expanded upon by exerting energy to make something new.

JGC: You began your art career by making wearable art. Could you discuss some of your favorite creations, your use of found, used, or recycled materials, and how they are related, directly or indirectly, to art you make in your studio?

Untitled (Female Torso Breast-Feeding Herself), 1992–95. Rubber tires and wood, 60 x 66 x 60 in. Photo: Courtesy Nelson Tejada.

CB: When I decide to work with a material, I always make a wearable art piece.

JGC: Like a matching costume.

CB: A material evolves in its own way before developing into an artwork. In the mornings when I get up, I sculpt myself first. I myself am sculpture and that continues on a daily basis. At the studio, the process continues. I started making wearable sculpture pieces—and also sculpture—using discarded materials from home: broken plates, the racks that hold the dishes, household items, fruit, bones, and bottle caps.

I also took a couple of classes and began weaving baskets. I used basket stitches to make the wearable pieces and sculpture. Somehow weaving and sculpture bonded and began to be one. I began using discarded pieces of wood, metal, then rubber tires and inner tubes. A friend has a farm, and I’ve now gone the full circle of being able to also add the agricultural aspect—worn metal blades from tractors, rubber inflations for milking cows, and things from the farm. On this farm in upstate New York, the lifestyle is very much the same as in the south. My family comes from Georgia and Alabama. I can hear the dialogue that I’ve grown up with. How people use language is connected to life itself.

When you’re working with found materials, each one comes with its own purpose, history, and use. I have spent up to four hours collecting materials. When looking, sometimes I had a project in mind; sometimes the pieces were interesting in themselves or together. I strapped these things onto my body and took them to my studio.

JGC: You majored in sociology at Rutgers. During that time, were you making art?

CB: Yes, and after graduating, a friend gave me a ceramic pot that got my attention. After that, I participated in two apprenticeships in ceramics in New York City. I was also studying African dance and Tai Chi Chuan early on.

It’s So Hard To Be Green, 2000. Rubber tire and wood, 150 x 252 x 24 in. Photo: Courtesy Nelson Tejada.

JGC: Do you still practice? Daily? Which form?

CB: Yes, I practice daily. The short form: the Yang style. By practicing ceramics, weaving, and Tai Chi simultaneously, I allowed myself to develop creative working methods.

JGC: You have a large, beautiful work called Homage to Thy Mother and you also have a funkier mother/daughter work made from air duct material, The Mother—Daughter Competition. You stated in a recent talk that sometimes mothers become daughters and daughters become others. This is a great and true paradox. Would you elaborate on the mother/daughter themes in your work?

CB: The Mother—Daughter Competition is a provocative sculpture. The material is from building air vent systems. The two figures were formed using a soft malleable metal; one leans toward a larger steel air duct unit while the other sits perched on her base. The Mother—Daughter Competition raises issues about changing roles. Role-playing is prevalent in our culture, and mothers, daughters, spouses, sisters, brothers, widows, aunts, and lovers sometimes change roles.

Regarding Homage To Thy Mother, when you honor someone, it’s a way to acknowledge something someone has accomplished. After careful study of an installation design at York College, Jamaica, Queens, I was inspired to create my first large wall relief sculpture; the long strands of inverted tires echoed images of shimmering reflected light. Homage To Thy Mother focuses on parental issues and the unmet needs of our environment and culture.

The Conversationalist, 1997. Rubber tires and wood, 240 x 252 x 144 in. Photo: Courtesy Nelson Tejada.

JGC: You’ve said that Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Mark di Suvero have influenced your work.

CB: Yes. Their compositions, colors, and structures have given me insights. Some of Romare Bearden’s collage works are very small, but they have so much energy, so much movement, so much texture, packed in with so much dialogue and raw exploding energy. Jacob Lawrence’s selection of colors and method of composition inspire the way I compose and manipulate my works. Mark di Suvero’s work has an enormous presence and movement in metal as do his earlier works in wood and rubber. The way his work intertwines and moves within itself stimulates me. Like a painter having a palette, my palette is the textures of the treads, the fibers from discarded materials, and tires that I use to create varied effects.

JGC: Was Louise Nevelson an influence?

CB: Of course. Louise Nevelson’s use of discarded materials and painting of artworks in solid black create complex dialogues.

Razor, 2002. Rubber tire and wood, 49 x 27 x 31 in. Photo: Courtesy Dietmar Busse, Marlborough Gallery, NY.

JGC: Any non-art inspirations?

CB: Art is about living. When you make particular choices—it doesn’t have to be something you’ve read in a book—they are infused into you. My astrologer tells me that from birth it was my destiny to be where I am at this point. Looking at other cultures, which I do, has an influence on being able to see within a work and within oneself. If you’re listening, you can make connections with yourself. I’m something of an anthropologist making particular selections of things, even using food as art.

JGC: You exhibited Repugnant Rapunzel for the White House exhibition in 1995–96. How was it understood?

CB: People who had previously viewed this sculpture at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where it is part of the permanent collection, understood its fairy-tale metaphor. Some people in Washington, DC, experienced a very intriguing abstract sculpture. In the tale, the mother had taken something that was not hers, and the daughter, Rapunzel, was taken in payment for what the mother had done, locked away, then freed through the efforts of a prince. The Repugnant Rapunzel is not yet free; the work is saying that not everyone becomes free from situations in life.

JGC: Your titles are always provocative: Raw Attraction, Conscience Disorder, and Untitled (Female Torso Breast-Feeding Herself). How do you develop these themes?

CB: I use situations that come up in my life and in the lives of others. For instance, Conscience Disorder has to do with people going through life aware that certain things are dysfunctional and self-destructive in their lives.

For Untitled (Female Torso Breast-Feeding Herself), the female is not being nurtured through partnership, family, or community; she turns inward to meet her needs. Raw Attraction was about gender issues and male-female relationships. You either feel like that sexy thing or a piece of meat. The work is ambiguous.

So (1/64), 2002. Rubber tire and wood, 28 x 24 x 26 in. Photo: Courtesy Dietmar Busse, Marlborough Gallery, NY.

JGC: Two of my favorite pieces are Spirit Hunter and Dialogue with Myself. Could you talk about how these pieces evolved?

CB: Dialogue with Myself was one of the earlier outdoor sculptures using the tire in a less deconstructed format. It’s about looking inward, addressing one’s needs, and presenting oneself in the purest way. The forms themselves are female labia. This is not to say we are about our sex, but there is something about our culture that has our thoughts on it all the time. The dialogue suggests that “Is she beautiful enough?” and outward appearance should not be the only things we address.

Spirit Hunter, again, deals with entrapment in our lives. We see barbed wire all over the city to keep things out, to keep things in. Many times we have justified reasons why we put up barriers. Yet when we think about trying to protect someone’s soul, sometimes we miscalculate. Sometimes the protector has lost his or her way.

JGC: What exhibitions are you planning for 2003?

CB: For the upcoming show at Storm King, there will be one existing outdoor work and one new outdoor work. We are researching the idea of constructing thin spiral tire strands up to 80 feet long. This would create a different motif in my collection of tire treatments.

The newest idea is to transform some tire motifs into bronze. I’m working now in wax and paper, which will translate into other materials. Using materials such as these and resins, stone, and bronze will help me to continue. It is part of my nature to continue exploring and reflecting for myself and for others. Most commissions have certain requirements about longevity. Translating tires into other mediums would create work that could go anyplace: airports, public streets, and commercial buildings. There will always be rubber. I’ve heard that tires can last up to 2,000 years.

JGC: What went into Serendipity?

CB: Serendipity is a composition shaped like a question mark and about 13 feet high; it would be over 60 feet long if extended. The word “serendipity” is about finding something accidentally and then having it turn into something valuable.

This was one of the first modular public artworks. The work is composed of tires. I needed to develop a system of modular pieces to increase my rate of tire applications on similar components of the larger public sculptures. Initially, Serendipity was modeled in a 3D CAD system, then modified after examining the scale model for constructability and stability. Many of my larger works use technological aids such as 3D CAD and photo-realistic rendering applications and tools. Commissioned art projects certainly require both traditional model-making techniques and advanced design tools.

I’m excited to be using a material that has been a foundation for this country and the world. I’ve used tires to translate ideas of universal importance into visual works. Now, viewers can appreciate the potential of tires in new and different ways. I am delighted that I was able to bring tires into the art world.

JGC: Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka gave a talk recently about the importance of using one’s own language and rituals. Do you have any rituals that help you to create?

CB: One must give oneself permission to create. People have that ability whether they care to stick to it or not. When I went to graduate school and started making work, I realized it was about my going inside to see what’s there and bringing out information to share with someone else. I’ve been very fortunate to make that kind of connection for myself to pursue what I’m hearing on the inside.

In this culture, it’s difficult to be different. When people see me, some recognize immediately: that’s sculpture. I may meet people who disagree with who I am, but making art is the only thing I choose to do.

JGC: Do you have any advice to younger artists?

CB: Work on whatever your thoughts are. Don’t beat yourself up when things don’t seem to go initially the way you think. Just keep working. Work in another material. Work smaller. For myself, when I didn’t have a studio space, I worked with bones and fruit. It’s about using what you have for the moment. Then, when other things come your way, you’re already prepared, because you’ve been working.

Jan Garden Castro is author/curator of Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne and author of The Last Frontier and The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe.