The enigmatic selfies Maryland artist Michael Booker paints are more than skin deep — they tell stories about Black culture and Black excellence.
“It’s just something that feels so vain to me to just take pictures of yourself all the time,” Booker told the AFRO, explaining why he’s not into traditional selfies. “It’s limiting and I feel like there so many more ideas that we can discuss and get out there.”
For example, in “Etch-A-Sketch Bust,” Booker painted a bust of his visage within a cracked “Etch-A-Sketch.” He said the cracks represent the idea of nothing lasting forever — busts are usually around for a very long time, but not when they’re drawn on an Etch-A-Sketch.
“As soon as you shake it, that image is gone and so I wanted to play with that idea of time and that temporary permanence,” Booker said. “It’s alluding to where we stand in time and how we’re remembered throughout time.”
Booker, 31, a Mississippi native now living in Laurel, Md. will serve up his alternate takes on the selfie in a forthcoming exhibit with seven other local artists at Flashpoint Gallery in Northwest D.C. called “Selfie: Me, Myself and Us.” It is scheduled to run from Feb. 11 through March 11 and it looks at our obsession with selfies and the narcissistic desire to capture and alter those digital images.
The exhibiting artists hail from the Sparkplug Collective, a group D.C. Arts Center created to foster a community that lets local artists meet, network with and lean on each other. Booker is the only Black artist showing work in the upcoming exhibition.
The two-year program grooms participants to become even better artists. It gets participants together to critique their work, visit each other’s studios, talk about exhibits, and meet curators, collectors and established artists.
“Part of our mission is to support emerging or underrepresented artists in the area, and many of these artists are young or starting up a second career,” said Carolyn Law, program manager at D.C. Arts Center and Sparkplug’s manager.
Sparkplug typically taps 10 people to join from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. There are nine total artists this time, and two, including Booker are Black. Booker joined the collective because he had just moved to the area from Mississippi and was looking to connect with other artists in the area.
“I was attracted to the other members who came to be part of Sparkplug as well because we have very diverse members — Blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans,” Booker said. “People from all walks of life coming together to share ideas about art.
Booker said he uses the obscured faces in his selfies to draw larger lessons about American culture.
In “Crown,” the other painting Booker will show at Flashpoint, a faceless Black person — the gender is open to interpretation — dons a brightly colored, Coogi hoodie. The hoodie has taken on a sinister meaning in American culture and it inspires fear when black men wear it. But Booker turns the hoodie into something more regal — a crown.
“The hoodie has become a symbol for Black Lives Matter after Trayvon Martin,” Booker said. “I see it as a symbol of strength, of power. You don’t get to see the face — you see the power that’s enveloped by the hoodie. So it’s a concentration on people, not the person.”
Selfies are nothing new. The concept of self-portraiture has been around for thousands of years, starting with cave wall paintings. The Sparkplug artists came up with the idea for the selfie show, seeing it as a subject that will resonate with audiences, Law said.
The exhibit questions whether selfies represent the downfall of American culture and whether we’re drowning ourselves in our digital reflections. Black people should take care and them to not only make political statements, but to also export the richness of black culture to the world, Booker said.
“Be careful to not be too vain with the selfie and it becomes something that’s about you alone and being too indulged in yourself,” Booker cautioned.