Born in 1953 in Newark, New Jersey, Booker received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Rutgers University in 1976 and her Master of Fine Arts from the City College of New York (CUNY) in 1993. Booker studied a variety of disciplines including African dance, ceramics, weaving, basketry and tai ’chi. These practices have shaped her innovative artistic practices in sculpting, painting, collage, and photography, using materials such as rubber, plastic, ceramic, and bronze. Known for her elaborate and ornamental sculptures created from used and discarded construction materials, such as rubber tires that Booker defines as “abstractly African”, the artist merges ecological concerns with explorations of racial and economic difference, globalization, and gender. Her powerful work across diverse mediums has brought forth the transformation of discarded tires and stainless steel into complex assemblages.
Booker began integrating scrapped construction materials into large, outdoor sculptures in the early 1990s. Her artistic process is enormously physical, from transporting the tires to reshaping them with machinery. Slicing, twisting and weaving this medium into radically new forms and textures, Booker gives the industrial materials an anthropomorphic quality. Focusing on the experience of being Black in America, her rubber tire works encompass various interwoven elements that are in conversation with each other. The varied tones of the rubber parallels human diversity, while the tire treads draw upon African scarification and textile design. The visible wear and tear on the tires mirrors the physical marks of aging.
Similar to the construction of her woven works is Booker’s personal aesthetic, which turns her body into a moving piece of art. Booker views herself as “a sculpture through her tasks of dressing, sewing, cooking, and other daily activities”, as she considers them to be art forms in their own rights. In the 1980s, Booker created wearable sculptures that serve as an imaginative space in which chi, or life energy, is emanated through the flow of materials. The wearable sculpture, which includes a headdress, is made with various African textiles, wrapped on top of each other with hanging strips of draped fabric to create movement. The sculptures are powerful constructions that command attention, at once fanciful and solemn.
Her works stand as testimony to art’s transformative impact. Chakaia Booker’s abstract sculptures stem from a tradition in modern art of using found objects and industrially fabricated materials recalling artists as diverse as Mark Di Suvero, Louise Nevelson, and Marcel Duchamp. Her commitment to being a performing work of art in constant flux coinciding with her power to challenge restrictive institutions demonstrates Booker's ability to be an engaged, all-encompassing artist of vicissitude.
Booker’s works are contained in more than 40 public collections and have been exhibited across the US, in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Booker was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005. Recent public installation highlights include Millennium Park, Chicago (2016-2018), Garment District Alliance Broadway Plazas, New York, NY (2014), and National Museum of Women in the Arts New York Avenue Sculpture Project, Washington DC (2012).
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami recently published a monograph which is currently available on the occasion of Chakaia Booker's 2021 retrospective, The Observance.