Industrial Aesthetic: The Tire Sculptures of Betsabée Romero and Chakaia Booker

The rubber tire, a globally omnipresent object that is mass-produced more than a billion times each year, is used as a medium by two artists whose work is on view at NMWA. Signals of a Long Road Together by Betsabée Romero (b. 1963) is the newest installation in the museum’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project. Inside the building, the monumental wall sculpture Acid Rain (2001) by Chakaia Booker (b. 1953) comprises more than 2,000 pounds of tires and rubber tubing. These two works both address culture, heritage, and environmental concerns in extraordinary ways.

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Movilidad en suspenso (Mobility in suspense) (foreground) and Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (background); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, En cautiverio (In captivity) (detail); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Movilidad y tensión (Mobility and tension); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Romero and Booker live and work in the two largest metropolises in North America—Mexico City and New York City—where pollution and waste are abundant. The sprawling roads of her bustling hometown have provided Romero with no shortage of used tires, which she describes as “one of the worst waste products of the automobile industry” given their bulk and durability. By carving the tires with patterns and imagery—snakes from Aztec artwork, a fleeing family to signify migration—Romero is able to transform this generic waste into meaningful artwork. Similarly, Booker, who moved to Manhattan in the 1980s when the city was notoriously dangerous and dirty, has made a practice of gathering shredded tires from the roadside and alleys, turning the material into art. Her work serves as an aesthetic response to the urban landscape she has known her whole life. “My palette is the textures of the treads, the fibers from discarded materials, and tires that I use to create varied effects,” Booker once explained.

Works by Romero and Booker also share a deep compassion for culture and heritage. Romero manipulates tires as a material that has been central to Mexican culture—from Mesoamerican ball games to the modern trade economy—while also “evoking traditional Mexican motifs” through her carved patterns and design. Tires are also a metaphor for human migration, always a pertinent topic within Mexico and across humanity at large. Booker’s artistic practice is a way for her to navigate the African American diaspora. Black is the primary color in all of her work, acting as an affirmation of strength. By fashioning art out of discarded tires, she evokes the beauty of African American people, despite the hardships they have faced. Her patterns and geographic shapes, sometimes based on traditional African textiles, carry this metaphor further.

Chakaia Booker's Acid Rain is a large sculpture made out of old tires that have been shressed, cut, and frayed. They are layered and coiled on top of each other to create a hulking sculpture that twists, turns, and juts outward.

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Chakaia Booker

These disparate works demonstrate how two artists living thousands of miles apart are both able to make versatile artistic use of the same—unexpected—material. Rubber tires are a tough material, often associated with masculine or industrial purposes rather than aesthetic, and yet these sculptors have made the medium their own, making powerful art as well as exploring the contemporary issues that reflect their values.

—Joshua Weiner was the fall 2018 digital communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Director’s Desk: Women Artists Address Migration

At first glance, it might be difficult to identify common threads in works by Ingrid Mwangi, Jami Porter Lara, and Betsabeé Romero. Each artist uses vastly different materials—the female body, plastic water bottles, and recycled tires—to address the challenging subject of migration. Through their art, these women are engaging with topical and consequential issues.

Born to a Kenyan father and a German mother, Ingrid Mwangi of the collective Mwangi Hutter describes being seen as white while living in Africa, but seen as black after immigrating to Germany. She used her body to call attention to issues of migration and racism in her 2001 photo diptych Static Drift, featured in NMWA’s collection. Two photographs show her torso as a canvas. She used stencils and sunlight to create her subject: in one, darker skin surrounds the shape of Africa with the words “Bright Dark Continent,” while in the other, lighter skin surrounds the shape of Germany with the words “Burn Out Country.”

Mwangi Hutter, Static Drift, 2001; Two chromogenic prints on aluminum, 29 1/2 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Mwangi Hutter, Static Drift, 2001; Two chromogenic prints on aluminum, 29 1/2 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

While Porter Lara was exploring a remote stretch of the U.S.–Mexico border, she saw discarded plastic water bottles that had been carried by migrants. She also encountered the remains of similarly discarded items: pot shards from ancient cultures. This juxtaposition inspired Porter Lara, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to consider the distinction between artifact and trash. Her thinking about how the plastic bottle might be seen as a “contemporary artifact” led to the creation of her ceramic vessels, which were recently on view in the NMWA exhibition Border Crossing.

Mexico City-based Romero embraces materials and techniques related to popular culture. She frequently transforms automotive components because cars have a broad cultural appeal. Four newly commissioned works are now on view outside the museum in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, the only public art space in Washington, D.C., featuring rotating installations of contemporary work by women artists. Romero’s carved and painted tires symbolize humankind’s profound connection to cultural traditions, as well as a yearning to keep families safe and thriving. The car-based imagery and themes of migration and movement resonate with the hum of activity at this busy D.C. intersection.

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail), 2018; Four tires with engraving and gold leaf and steel support, approx. 192 1/2 x 86 5/8 x 9 3/4 in.; Courtesy Betsabeé Romero Art Studio; Photo by Mara Kurlandsky, NMWA

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail), 2018; Four tires with engraving and gold leaf and steel support, approx. 192 1/2 x 86 5/8 x 9 3/4 in.; Courtesy Betsabeé Romero Art Studio; Photo by Mara Kurlandsky, NMWA

Be it body, bottle, or tire, these three artists have found their artistic vehicles and used them to convey an intimate understanding of issues that affect our world. From migration to racism to identity, the symbolic content makes connections for viewers and elevates their work. They see a bigger picture outside themselves, and their powerful ideas implore viewers to ask questions.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.