WORDS Erica Ciccarone
PHOTOGRAPH Jerry Atnip
Omari Booker’s home is crammed with paintings. They hang on walls, lean up against furniture, and sit atop beds and tables. There are so many that it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine that Booker is painting another at the same time that he’s making you tea.
On the easel, there is a long door on which Booker has painted a street scene. Heavy brush strokes fill in the sky with the cool colors of dusk offsetting the warmth of the brick buildings at the intersection of Cheatham Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard in North Nashville. The moneyed Werthan Mills Lofts stretches down the block, a barely perceptible skyline in the distance. In the foreground, the Metro Housing Agency office sits on the corner. You have to wonder: As the area’s property values swell, how long can these two entities exist together?
Booker won’t say. He doesn’t make any bold statements about his changing city, but his exhibition that opens at Woodcuts Gallery and Framing this month asks questions. Called I Live Here, the series began as a collaboration with photographer Kehana Krumme, a petite white California transplant who, at the outset, didn’t appear to share much in common with six-foot-nine Nashville native Omari. As they discussed their differences, Booker looked around at his North Nashville community; soon, the two set out to photograph and then paint the people from both the Werthan Lofts and the Metro Housing Agency sides of Rosa Parks Boulevard.
The differences in landscapes are pretty stark, but not so with the people Booker has painted. It’s easy to imagine the sitters in I Live Here to be part of one community: to go to church, celebrate graduations, and attend sporting events together as one. With Booker’s rich palette, they are imbued with warmth. Each portrait affirms the sitter’s life: his joys and regrets, her triumphs and failings, and, important to Booker, the ways in which they feel the most free.
We talked with Omari Booker before the show’s opening.
Tell me about the way you’ve framed this series.
They’re framed in windows that were pulled out of demolished housing in Germantown that dates back to the 1930s. The door also came from some North Nashville housing that was torn down or gutted and refurbished. Same with the burglar bars that will go on another piece.
In two of the pieces in this series, the muntins of the frames are vertical so they suggest prison bars. One portrait is of an older white woman and the other is a middle-aged black man. Why did you choose these two portraits for those frames?
What I love about art is the instinct of it. So much happens that has nothing to do with the artist. Honestly, it happened that way because of the eyes. They’re in the right place. If I did that with other pieces . . .
It would go right through his face. But there’s something there thematically, too.
What her prison is and what his prison is . . . that’s a pretty palpable thing.
The series reminds me that it’s crucial to affirm each other’s existence.
We miss so much importance by not valuing everybody. Everyone’s got stuff to offer . . . Homeless people may not be residents, if they don’t have a residence, but they’re alive.
The most difficult thing about prison was the reality that I lived there. It ended up being kind of transformative. I think I’m forever changed. I don’t credit the justice system, but you go into certain places where you’re forced to either learn something about yourself or wallow.
That brings me to your artist statement. You say you hope your work communicates to your audience “their unique and intrinsic ability to be free.” That’s really beautiful and profound.
I think freedom is the most prized thing that we have. For me, I found that art was the way to get that when I was in prison. When I was drawing and sketching and listening to my headphones, I didn’t feel like I was in prison anymore. People are like, “You’ve created so much work so quickly.” That’s my connection to freedom, so I’m going to do it as often as I possibly can.
Finding that connection to true freedom and liberation is something that’s priceless. It can’t be taken from you. No matter what hole you’re in, you can still have it.
Music seems to have an influence on your work, too. Even though you paint mostly realism, there’s abstraction within it that includes unanticipated colors that contribute to this overall sense of warmth that makes it all glow.
I’m gonna paraphrase my favorite artist, Jay-Z: “Get in the studio, crack the door, and let God in.” Music is the fuel. It’s the energy. It’s spirit-driven stuff. Anything you do that is really good, it’s not you. It’s not us, it’s through us. Having music playing, having that spirit to get lost in, it’s a conduit. It gets you there, even if you are doing work that’s realistic. I’m so grateful for musicians. Of all genres, I think I relate to hip hop so heavily because it gives me a personal context to be truly free to be confident. You grow up as a black male in the South, and you don’t have a space outside of athletics to really be confident. Anything that is aggressive is looked at as dangerous.
What’s your favorite song?
“Never Let Me Down” by Kanye West, featuring Jay-Z and J. Ivy.
You’ve been one of the artists organizing the Jefferson Street Art Crawl that kicked off last fall. There is a lot going on artistically in North Nashville as always, but art is starting to feel a lot like resistance to gentrification there. What role can artists play in a rapidly changing city?
I think awareness. What I love about being an artist is that it takes me personally out of the equation. If you look at one of my pieces and have a reaction, you’ve gotta deal with that within you. It has nothing to do with me. I feel like I have a lot more to offer as an activist by being an artist than I might even in politics or through speaking. People can’t accept the message sometimes when they see who it’s coming from. I don’t say a lot about this exhibit being about gentrification. I present it as, This is what the neighborhood looks like right now. What do you think?
Omari Booker’s exhibit I Live Here opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. during the Jefferson Street Art Crawl on June 24. On July 7 at 6 p.m., Paul Polycarpou and Erica Ciccarone will lead an artist’s discussion with Booker. I Live Here remains on view until August 5. For more information, visit www.woodcutsfineartgallery.com. See more of Booker’s work at www.omaribooker.com.