Chakaia Booker uses old tires to make art that speaks to the African American experience.

Rubber With Soul 

Chakaia Booker uses old tires to make art that speaks to the African American experience.

"Blue Bell (Deception)," by Chakaia Booker, mixed media.
  • "Blue Bell (Deception)," by Chakaia Booker, mixed media.
Where was the accident, and how many people died? Tire Sculptures, a new exhibit at the Akron Art Museum, is so full of twisted surfaces that one wonders if there are dead bodies and crushed car parts around the corner. African American sculptor Chakaia Booker knows what to do with scrap, though. By taking discarded rubber tires and molding them to create abstract patterns, Booker manages to create focused work that, in the process, addresses contemporary African American issues.

New York City-based Booker has attracted much attention lately. Over the past five years, her sculpture has been exhibited in the White House and in galleries across the United States, as well as in Japan and the Netherlands. This spring, her work will be included in the Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York, the most important survey of trends in contemporary art. On the basis of her work here, she richly deserves the honor. Booker is able to create something dramatic out of a material that we see every day. Transforming unprepossessing raw material into thought-provoking art is never an easy task: Junk usually remains junk, however desperately the artist wishes it were otherwise. Not here.

It's hardly a new concept to weave individual pieces of debris together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its respective parts. Many modern artists have proven that refashioning junk is not a mechanical process but, rather, a creative one. For example, well-known American sculptor John Chamberlain has made expressive works entirely from crushed automobile parts. In these creations, fragments of dented steel sing in unison. African American sculptor Melvin Edwards has also taken this path. Around 1965, he began making a series of large-scale assemblages of welded iron and industrial junk that he titled "Lynch Fragments." These visceral, often gritty pieces included steel chains. The chains symbolized "what black people have come out of," while also suggesting the existence of "cultural linkages" in the black community. That is what the current exhibit is all about: using art both to explore what blacks have emerged from and to reaffirm the ideal of social harmony in the black community.

It's useless to attempt to describe art in this way, though. This exhibit is a fine example of why this is so. Booker, like all talented artists, conveys her thematic concerns visually. Her artistic statement, while providing a clue to her mindset when creating the work, is nevertheless a poor substitute for experiencing the art itself. So, although Booker tells us that the black of the rubber "stands for the skin color of Africans" and that "the tire tread patterns are similar to African motifs used in fabrics," the sculptures themselves rebel against such a neat symbolic framework. When she uses steel chain links in a 1998 piece called "Blue Bell (Deception)," they not only evoke slavery, they suggest the metallic quality of that bell mentioned in the title. Bells can peal with joy, or as Edgar Allan Poe noted in his poem "The Bells," they can moan and groan in a grotesque way. All this has to do not with the bells themselves, Poe hinted, but rather the mental state of the person who is listening to them. Booker seems to be saying something similar. Her streamlined artist's statement to the contrary, she is interested in opening up interpretive options rather than closing them off.

Similarly, what does it mean to call this rubber sculpture a bell in the first place? That, perhaps, is the deception mentioned in the title. The artist, merely by attaching a provocative title, is encouraging the viewer to suspend conventional ways of thinking and to imagine a world in which bells are actually made of rubber. Certainly, there is a dash of dada here. Marcel Duchamp tweaked the sensibilities of polite bourgeois society by displaying a urinal marked R. Mutt in an art gallery context; Booker, with tongue firmly in cheek, asks us to wonder if a rubber bell can make music.

Also suggestive is Booker's decision to enclose many of these sculptures in wooden frames that resemble boxes. The window here functions as a metaphor for entrapment: The spontaneous forms, with their curvy slopes and unpredictable alternations between solids and voids, seem to chafe when enclosed in these deep-dish frames. That might be the point. Many African American artists have followed in the footsteps of Joseph Cornell, the American artist who devised poetically resonant combinations of everyday objects and placed them in custom-made boxes that enhanced their mysterious qualities. This way of creating art places a premium on transforming ordinary objects by subtly altering the context in which they appear. The language and grammar are simple, but the net effect is anything but. For many black artists, placing ordinary objects in boxes has meant the ability to gather relics from a racist American past (like advertising images of Aunt Jemima) and lay them to rest. Booker uses the box format, too, but hers don't function like coffins. She seems to be calling our attention to the contrast between the hard-edged angular frame and the flowing shapes that, like raging currents, seem about to spill past a confined environment.

What does all this suggest about African American issues in Booker's art? They are there for those who are prepared to find them. Booker steers us in that direction with her artist's statement, but she needn't have worried. It's all in the art. As Sharon Patton has written in her book African American Art, "Black of the 1980s and '90s is not an identity, but identities." Recognizing such differences within the black community is Booker's goal. How does she do this artistically? Each strip of rubber, Booker seems to tell us, is like an individual. By combining these pieces, the artist is creating a community in which each part contributes to the whole. The inspired touch is that this theme can only be understood when we recall that the foundation of Booker's art is the contrast between the use of one color -- black -- and the textural variety achieved by melding these twisted surfaces together. Although she acknowledges that contemporary African American culture is composed of a host of identities (the textural variety), all paths converge in a shared past (the single color).

That past is slavery. The challenge, resolved in the art, but as yet unresolved in the African American community at large, is to forge an environment in which all blacks can acknowledge shared cultural traditions and experiences while still retaining their individuality. This is a gutsy theme to take up in sculpture. Booker is not only suggesting that great things can emerge when individuals join forces. By using found objects and recycled materials, she is challenging the dominance of fine or "high" art.

Also worth seeing at the museum, as a complement to this show, is a fine selection of photographs from the '50s and beyond that document the fight for civil rights. If Booker attempts to reach one audience member at a time, these photos seek to be powerful on impact. Take Charles Moore's shot of Birmingham demonstrators being sprayed by police with fire hoses. A classic example of distinguished photojournalism, it places the viewer at the scene and crystallizes history. One recalls that it was around this time, in the spring of 1963, that John F. Kennedy gave the famous speech in which he stated that civil rights was a moral issue, and that the nation would have to fulfill its promise to blacks. By invoking "the nation," Kennedy was implying that the military force of the federal government would be used if repressive police action would not stop.

African American essayist Gerald Early has said that America's major myth is that of crossing over. Immigrants crossed the ocean to reach Ellis Island. Those who seek social mobility attempt to cross the tracks. According to Early, though, blacks have always struggled with what he calls "the idea of being there while being here." That is, how does one leave slavery behind for a better life, when the weight of that past bears down on how things are now? The civil rights photographs and the sculptures of Chakaia Booker grapple with that question.

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