In August of 2018 I acquired the Chakaia Booker Papers for the Smithsonians Archive of American Art. The newspaper clippings, magazine articles, magazine ads, postcards, exhibition catalogues, and announcements of public programs document the myriad residencies, commissions, outdoor installations, a and gallery exhibitions that span Bookers almost thirty-year career.
Like many artists of her generation, Booker, born in 1953, distribute museums and galleries to promote herself and her work in the period prior to gallery representation by Marlborough, New York, from 2001 to 2012. The thick gray binder was filled with photographs, slides, and statements on key compositions.
Opening it today, one encounters Grave Yard Series (1995), twenty-two silver gelatin prints that feature Booker walking in an abandoned graveyard in Queens, New York, where only urban detritus remains. In one shot, the statuesque sculptor is seated on a discarded computer tower. Gazing directly into the camera, she wears a crown of wrapped textiles and a crucifix made of two crossed bones that hangs from her neck, covering her chest. Standing in some shots, squatting in others, the artist moves meditatively through sanctuary of decomposed cans, bones, leather, rope, inner tubes, wood, wire, and glass, as her gloved hands intimately interact with the tires that would become her primary material This image of Booker encapsulates the effects of transportation, urbanization, technological innovation, and globalization on Black populations; it is both tragic and triumphant.
Booker, who earned a BA in sociology from Rutgers University, has referred to herself not only as an abstract and conceptual artist but also as a narrative environmental sculptor. Her artistic practice encompasses the environment, ecology, and economics. Her experimentation with discarded materials began in the 198os. In a passage titled Male Torso That Left His Path, she writes: Tires are used for economic, environmental and aesthetic reasons.. They are malleable and beautifully textured. Environmental, every tire used in our work is one less tire to be discarded in some landfill.
Composing sculptures that measure up to sixty feet long and ten feet high, Booker manipulates tires to create an immersive, ambulatory viewing experience. Walking in and around these tyre structures is a multisensory encounter. They smell of charred rubber, as she retrieved some in the aftermath of car fires on the streets of New York. These treads have retained the residue of their past lives from the assembly line to the sales floor, on the streets and in junkyards. Unlike the materials of classical sculptures-wood, bronze, or stone- the tires Booker employs are tools of mobility. The tire is a symbol of mobility. Yet these tires, detached from their larger system, damaged and discarded, are rendered immobile. While that detachment, damage, and discard refers to these obsidian tires in the graveyard, it also refers to Black people, unable to move out of the class to which they are constricted by systemic racism, segregated, and discriminated against, thus rendering them unable to access opportunities to generate and accumulate wealth. Through the act of cutting, shredding, slicing, and shearing the tires, Booker deconstructs the powerlessness and poverty projected onto the Black body in the public domain. Empathetically embracing the color, curvatures, and surface contours of the tires, crossing, curling, and coiling her treads as a seamstress does with thread, Booker creates new geometries with each gesture.
Bookers own words offer some insight into the ancestral origins to which these metric compositions allude. In a passage titled Tire Sculpture, Booker writes: Versatility is vital to the survival of Africans in the diaspora. The designs
and patterns of tires are abstractly African; their color is the blackness, the skin color of Africans. The tire tread patterns are similar to African motifs used in fabrics and other artwork. Tread patterns also symbolize the patterns of body decoration. These patterns also suggest symbols of scarring which result from the life that Black people are forced to live?
In many West African societies, scarification is a rite of passage, an indication of transition from childhood to adulthood. Parallel lines, perpendicular lines, and pointillist designs applied in patterns on the face and back, in perfect symmetry on each side, are beautiful, permanent markers of belonging to a specific society. It is a spiritual process, a ritual often performed in private, as it involves pain and bloodshed. Scarification indicates survival. Whereas other scholars have focused on the sexual connotations pokers sculptures, I am interested in their spiritual references. As the grandchild of African American Baptist minister and a student of political science, African African American studies, and poststructuralism, I will here provide context for an interpretation of Bookers sculptures that honors the information systems that have inspired her ideology and artistic practice. I am interested in not only historicizing the physicality of the ready made she deconstructs, but also in interrogating the material composition and psychic conditions under which the readymade itself was constructed. An investigation of these abstract forms must first consider their conceptual frame-works. A focus on form and comparisons to her contemporaries would be incomplete without an examination of the ethnographic, economic, political, and cultural conditions that created the objects that Booker resurrects and revolutionizes.
Booker draws divine inspiration from African and African American spiritual practices. Her sculptures operate within the lineage of West African power objects, living mediators between this world and the other world, containers for magical medicine that transmits supernatural powers. Often these totemic structures refer to royalty and are used in ritual contexts. Specifically, these works draw on the architectural properties of African royal dwellings and shrines. Destinys Doorman and Nomadic Dwelling (both 2003), for example, elongated, erect tire sculptures, exude the elegance of figurative African carved wood sculptures that adorn the facades of chief compounds or shrines. Resting upon a rectangular base, these hard-edge, geometric abstract carvings symbolize the chiefs body or founding-warrior ancestor. Bookers vertical structures, composed of curved, woven inner tubes, resemble those that stand parallel to one another at the threshold of spaces of ritual, not merely adorning private entrances but spiritually guiding and physically guarding chose within. The space between the two parallel sculptures constructs a contact zone, a portal through which one passes from one dimension to the next, between the physical and nonphysical, the living and the nonliving. Destinys Doorman and Nomadic Dwelling both refer to African spiritual practices, specifically pertaining to transcendence.
Booker invokes the presence of her African ancestors, whose tribal scars, like the treads on tires, are demarcations of origin, function, duration, and location. She also summons her African American ancestors, their whip lashings leaving raised keloid scars, etching the date and time of an oppositional encounter with a slave master. Through her own meticulous, methodical, and mathematically calculated manual labor, Booker makes contact with the residue of remnants of objects constructed by the hands of powerless Black laborers converting torn tires into power objects imbued in the rubber itself, the physical and psychic residue of Black laborers communes with Bookers own repetitive movement. Recalling their rituals of resistance, the artist internalizes and releases the energy of the tires, creating new geometries with each gesture. As sculptures within museums and outdoor installations, the deconstructed rubber tire is both material and medium between the Black laborers and the aristocracy with whom they have no audience. These works are meditations on Black labor. They are not simply metaphors, they are memorials to Black laborers.
I met with Booker many times while collecting her papers, during which she often mentioned that she had letters, notes, and cards from the artist Al Loving saved in a file that she would one day donate to the archives. Loving taught painting at the City College of New York from 1988 to 1996. Booker was his student.
Born in 1935 in Detroit, Loving earned a BFA from the University of Illinois and an MFA in painting at the University of Michigan. He had his first solo presentation in Detroit in 1969. Six months later, having moved to New York at age thirty four, he became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Shortly after this exhibition, which featured Lovings hard edge geometric abstractions, the artist shifted paradigms.
Lovings exhibition in the second-floor auditorium integrated the Whitney Museum at the height of the civil rights movement. From 1968 to 1971 the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition demonstrated at the Whitney, demanding the exhibition and acquisition of Black artists therein, and this was the museums response. Amid a heated debate among Black artists on the formal and representational qualities of Black art, Lovings paintings provided a seemingly deracialized, depoliticized surface. Loving had concentrated on the tension between flatness and spatial illusionism. In the 1970s the artist became disenchanted with his earlier, hard-edge geometric paintings. Loving dispensed with notions of centralized composition,
figure/ground separation, and pictorial frame in his later corn canvas and collaged paper works. Disillusioned with the impersonal discourse around abstraction, Loving reinvested in abstractions capacity to represent aspects of the Black experience. In works like Self Portrait #23 (1973), Loving, whose mother and grandmother were quilters, combined hundreds of pieces of cut and corn canvas or paper into an abundance of overlapping patterns and shapes, their rich and intuitive array of colors [stretching] irregularly, spiraling outward, surrounding the space, and engulfing the viewer.
Richard J. Powell asserts that these works were based on thematic and perceptual echoes of non-European prototypes, West African masquerades and textile arts. For Loving, abstraction was an opportunity to engage materials, rather than color, in the debate regarding the racial, economic, and cultural origins of a work of art. These heavy, discarded rags, sheared, torn, and sewn into heptahedrons and spirals suspended from the walls, conveyed the complexity of the African American condition.
In a review of the exhibition Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change, Sarah Rose Sharp asserts that quilts have always offered a subversive avenue for self- expression to people who have been historically marginalized due to their gender, education, financial independence, and access to materials. The act of creating whole cloth from scraps and dregs is not just a matter of making ends meet, but a statement on the nature of what (and who) is discarded, as well as an empowering act of reclaiming that refuse in the name of something transformative and beautiful? Drawing on the quilting tradition, Loving alludes to the geometric, abstract quilts in which African American women embedded codes, conducting passengers on the Underground Railroad as they migrated from slavery and Jim Crow laws in the South to freedom in the North. Loving became known for his spirals, constructed of rag paper, glue, acrylic paint, and windshield wiper blades. The spiral was, for Loving, a political con, referencing the African American abstract artists who formed the Spiral Group 963 and a spiritual symbol of the continuity between generations of Africans and African Americans.
Bookers use of abstraction to access ancestral expressive modes echoes, parallels and builds upon the artistic strategies employed by her model and mentor. The two conversed and corresponded frequently, even after Booker earned her MFA from City College in 1993. Like Loving, Booker was raised by women who sewed clothes for themselves, their families, and their friends. Having learned to sew at an early age, began her practice with cloth, deconstructing recycled clothing to construct wearable mixed-media objects. Though she also experimented with bone, ceramics, basket-weaving, and casting metal, her consciousness of the effects of industrialization and globalization, specifically on people of African descent, brought her back to recycled material and its subversive power. Like Loving, Booker would enter the world stage at the Whitney Museum. In 2000, her large-scale twenty-one-foot-long wall relief tire sculpture titled Its So Hard To Be Green, composed of spirals of sheared rubber tire, was featured in the Whitney Biennial.
At the time of his Whitney debut, Lovings post-painterly abstractions were not compared to those of his white male counterparts. Kellie Jones notes that Loving received only three reviews by mainstream art press. Considering the absence of critical discourse addressing Black abstract artists, Jones concludes, the majority of Black professional artists were unknown to this generation of critics. Thirty years later, Bookers work would enter the canon, placing her in conversation with white male artists who celebrated or critiqued American capitalism via the iconography of automobiles.
Having seen and studied Marcel Duchamps Bicycle Wheel (1951), Robert Rauschenbergs Automobile Tire Print (1953) and Monogram (195559), John Chamberlains Shortstop (1957), and Allan Kaprows installation Yard (1961), Booker knew that by employing the readymade rubber tire as material, she would compete with white male artists whose sculptures, performances, and conceptual works dominated postwar abstraction. In deconstructing the tire, she could confront, challenge, and complicate the tires status as the signifier of freedom, and the car as a symbol of the American dream. If Rauschenberg represented the physical impact of the Ford Model I, Booker addressed the metaphysical impact of Fordism.
The discarded tire is a metaphor for the dispersion, dislocation, and discarding of Black labor. Employing the inner and outer portions of the tires, Booker implies that the physical and psychological states of people of African descent have been altered by their employment in the Western colonial, capitalist, and corporate system. Bookers intent is to evidence the physical and psychological violence rendered upon the Black body within the global capitalist system since the invention of transportation technologies. (...)
Erin Joan Gilbert, Transcendence and Transfiguration. Chakaia Booker: The Observance, Institute of Contemporary Art Miami (Exh. Cat.), Ed. Alex Gartenfeld, Stephanie Seidel, Hirmer, Munich, 2021. pp. 8189.