Deconstruction + Reconstruction: Chakaia Booker Lecture

Chakaia Booker circumnavigated Given Auditorium with a handheld microphone, tracing her artistic history while images of her work flipped by on the overhead projector. With each image, close to 100 shown, the artist read out the title from memory- often eliciting laughter with titles such as Gynecologist Visit.

To a packed auditorium, on Nov. 28 at 5 p.m., artist Chakaia Booker spoke about her life and her work and how each influenced one another.

Booker, hailing from Newark, NJ, received her undergraduate degree in sociology from Rutgers University in 1976. After deliberating for years what type of art she wanted to make, she then went on to receive her MFA from the City College of New York in 1993.

Booker  draws inspiration from two skills, both developed since childhood: sewing and cooking. Booker recalled several stories surrounding what she referred to as a “particular process” when carrying out both tasks. These daily activities helped her to better understand the art making process step by step, and then  apply it to her work.

Though she started in ceramics, the majority of Booker’s work is made from rubber tires, which she would find on the streets of New York City and take back to her small studio to reassemble. She explained that New York City in the early eightys  had plenty of rubber and debris to go around, and she would often watch cars explode into fires and then take the leftover tires from the flames.

She began her sculptural journey by creating wearable art pieces from these found objects. In this time Booker taught herself how to weave and began to create larger scale sculptures. 

Booker found inspiration for her work on the street, mentioning as an example a time she saw a mother carry her small child’s stroller down the crowded metro steps with ease. She went on to turn what she saw in real life into an all-tire structure resembling what she witnessed, calling the work Mother and Child.

Another type of sculpture Booker works on is articles of clothing made entirely of fruit. These intricate pieces, such as vests and jackets, are made of fruit that Booker ate herself  such as grapefruit and oranges. Booker noted that these pieces over the years have still retained their citrusy smell.

On the note of scent, Professor of Art Ankeney Weitz asked the artist if her sculptures retained their rubber smell and how this impacted the viewing experience. Booker responded by saying that scent was undoubtedly part of the sculpture itself, and that the distinctive smell is simply part of the experience.

When responding to one final question posed by Art History Department Chair Tanya Sheehan, regarding the environmental message behind her work, Booker responded by lamenting over the sheer amount of abandoned rubber that still exists in our society. She ended her slide presentation with a photo of a tire junkyard, thousands of tires filling the screen. “There are still tires from the thirties lying around,  and with my art, I’m doing my part.”