publication of the International Sculpture Center
Language of Life:
A Conversation with Chakaia Booker
by Jan Garden Castro
Reconstructed Elements, 2002.
Rubber tire and wood, 32 x 36 x 31 in.
Courtesy Dietmar Busse, Marlborough Gallery, NY
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
Hunter, Self-Portrait, Homage to Thy Mother, Its 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. Bookers 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 Bookers materials to daterubber, fiber,
wood, metal, food, and furniture, to name some of the main ingredients
in her ever-expanding artistic vocabularyremind us of their origins,
history, and use. It is not exaggerating to say that Bookers work
often alludes to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and
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 Michigans Institute for Research on Women and Gender and School
of Art and Design and also at venues in New Orleans and Colorado.
in Black (Industrial Cicatrization),
Rubber tires, wood, metal, husks, fruit, and bone, dimensions variable.
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?
Echoes in Black (Industrial Cicatrization) deals with scarificationthe
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 its rust stains; other times, its the textures,
the treads that remain, the movement and coloration that come to me when
picking up a piece.
The MotherDaughter Competition, 1993.
Aluminum and steel, dimensions variable.
Courtesy Nelson Tejada
As a conceptual analogy,
I usually start with the rubber tire itself. Its about mobility,
growth. Theyve used it on the moon. In a large way, its 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 environmentone piece of it. Whether I use an
architectural format or something to look at, I believe art should dialogue
you talk about the women in your family and their various influences on
you? Youve 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 aboutmy
arms were very long, I was very tall, and my body shape was different.
Things that I liked didnt 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, its not about the exact buttons or matching thread,
its 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.
youre working with found materials,
each one comes with its own purpose, history, and use."
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
CB: When I
decide to work with a material, I always make a wearable art piece.
Untitled (Female Torso Breast-Feeding Herself), 199295.
Rubber tires and wood, 60 x 66 x 60 in.
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 piecesand also sculptureusing 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 Ive now gone the
full circle of being able to also add the agricultural aspectworn
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 Ive grown up with. How people use language
is connected to life itself.
Its So Hard To Be Green, 2000.
tire and wood, 150 x 252 x 24 in.
Courtesy Nelson Tejada
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.
majored in sociology at Rutgers. During that
time, were you making art?
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.
you still practice? Daily? Which form?
The Conversationalist, 1997.
Rubber tires and wood, 240 x 252 x 144 in.
Courtesy Nelson Tejada
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
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 MotherDaughter 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?
MotherDaughter 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 MotherDaughter 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.
To Thy Mother, when you honor someone, its 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.
said that Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Mark di Suvero have influenced
CB: Yes. Their
compositions, colors, and structures have given me insights. Some of Romare
Beardens 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 Lawrences selection of colors and method
of composition inspire the way I compose and manipulate my works. Mark
di Suveros 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.
and wood, 49 x 27 x 31 in.
Marlborough Gallery, NY
Louise Nevelson an influence?
CB: Of course.
Louise Nevelsons use of discarded materials and painting of artworks
in solid black create complex dialogues.
CB: Art is
about living. When you make particular choicesit doesnt have
to be something youve read in a bookthey 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 youre
listening, you can make connections with yourself. Im 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 199596. How was it understood?
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.
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.
of my favorite pieces are Spirit Hunter and Dialogue with Myself.
Could you talk about how these pieces evolved?
with Myself was one of the earlier outdoor sculptures using the tire
in a less deconstructed format. Its about looking inward, addressing
ones 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.
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
someones soul, sometimes we miscalculate. Sometimes the protector
has lost his or her way.
So (1/64), 2002.
Rubber tire and wood, 28 x 24 x 26 in.
Courtesy Dietmar Busse, Marlborough Gallery, NY
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. Im 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. Ive heard that tires can last up to 2,000 years.
went into 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
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.
to be using a material that has been a foundation for this country and
the world. Ive 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.
Laureate Wole Soyinka gave a talk recently about the importance of using
ones 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 whats
there and bringing out information to share with someone else. Ive
been very fortunate to make that kind of connection for myself to pursue
what Im hearing on the inside.
In this culture,
its difficult to be different. When people see me, some recognize
immediately: thats sculpture. I may meet people who disagree with
who I am, but making art is the only thing I choose to do.
you have any advice to younger artists?
CB: Work on
whatever your thoughts are. Dont beat yourself up when things dont
seem to go initially the way you think. Just keep working. Work in another
material. Work smaller. For myself, when I didnt have a studio space,
I worked with bones and fruit. Its about using what you have for
the moment. Then, when other things come your way, youre already
prepared, because youve 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 OKeeffe.