Women in Art: Chakaia Booker

Chakaia Booker doesn’t confine sculptures to her studio and institutes of art, she wears them.

Not in the traditional sense. She does not simply hoist her sculptures from the ground and decide to wear them around town. Instead, she considers herself, her clothing, everything that she does and says and adorns herself with to be a form of art. Booker has said of her unconventional style of dress and blurring of lines between art and fashion, “When I get up each day, I begin with myself, as far as sculpting myself”.

I think it’s amazing when artists incorporate their artwork into every part of their life. With some artists it seems like an act, but with others such as Booker, it seems as though they truly are just doing what they want to, what they think is visually pleasing or interesting.

Chakaia Booker (SCAD Permanent Collection)

Booker considers her headdresses and other garments made of wool, colorful fabric, tire rubber, and more to be wearable sculptures. She talks about the energy each piece brings, saying, “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.”

Her wearable sculptures remind me of Nick Cave’s work. Cave is a Chicago based artist who specializes in creating sound suits, large suits made of materials that rustle, bristle, and rub together to create interesting sounds. I believe Cave began creating his suits in the 90’s, it’d be interesting to know if he was at all influenced by Booker’s wearable sculptures.

Nick Cave's Soundsuit (left) as compared to Chakaia Booker's wearable sculpture (right). These two pieces in particular remind me of one another. Ever since seeing this photograph of Booker I've been trying to think of what it reminds me of; this soundsuit that I had the opportunity to see in person at the Smart Museum of Art! (Which I would recommend by the way. It has great work, it's free, and there's a cute cafe attached. Check it out if you're in the Hyde Park area!)

Setting aside her wearable art origins (although really these play a role throughout her work), what Booker’s well known for are her pieces incorporating rubber tires. This is the style of her work that I’ve been able to see in real life in the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Acid Rain (2001). I apologize for the poor photo quality. It's a good thing I'm going to be living with a photo major because a photographer I am not.

Her pieces are often huge walls of slashed up rubber tires with this amazing texture that you just want to touch. The NMWA had an interesting pairing of her work in the same room as Louise Nevelson, an artist whom Booker has acknowledged as an influence. Booker is almost the organic form of Nevelson’s geometric. Both artists find abandoned materials, considered garbage by most, and build them up into large black sculptures focusing on form often within the confines of a rectangle or square. Here’s a comparison of their work for those who are interested:

Left: Booker's "It's So Hard to be Green" (2000) Right: Nevelson's "Sky Cathedral" (1958)

You can see how Booker favors the curving, organic forms of rubber tires while Nevelson gravitates towards geometric shapes. Booker’s draw to tires stems from her time at the City College of New York during the somewhat anarchic time of the 80’s. Tompkins Square near her school had been transformed into a makeshift homeless shelter which was provoked into violence during a police crack down in 1988. Months of rioting followed including cars being burned and destroyed in the streets. Booker realized that the burning car tires would melt and char, but would not be entirely destroyed.

This is what inspired her to use car tires as her medium. By picking up the remains of ruined tires in the smoldering streets, Booker found something she felt she could really work with. Here’s some of her work incorporating rubber tires:

Homage to Thy Mother (Landscape) (1996)

Industrial Perpetuosity (1997)

Nomadic Warrior (1998)

Wrench (Wench) II (2001)

Spirit Hunter (2001)

Booker’s work is intended to address a number of social concerns. One of the most obvious issues is environmental, the very materials lend themselves to the cause. Her work addresses our unnecessary consumption of materials and how these materials are thrown away to never decompose and simply sit in a landfill. Other works address sexuality and femininity versus masculinity. For example, her piece Spirit Hunter (seen above) is said to embody feminist ideas in regards to birth and sexuality.

Her work also addresses African American identity. The nuances and varying shades of black found in her rubber tire sculptures are said to symbolize strength and complexity of black identity. Her work is also a metaphor for African American survival in modern times, Booker has said of this, “the tires characterize a symbolic significance in toughness, linking to the will to survive of the African Diaspora”.

Overall, Booker creates work that is strong both in concept and in execution. For those who like art for the sake of it being something interesting look at, Booker is perfect for you. For those who like to think about the ideas behind a piece, Booker’s perfect too! Chakaia Booker started to truly become well respected in the art world around the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. One can only hope and assume that her career and her renown will only grow from here.

Check out more of Booker’s work at her website. Or read more about her here, here, and here.

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