Michael Chukes is a brilliant artist. A sculptor who goes only by the name Chukes. I found him a week ago as I was digging through Facebook, as I do often, to find black and brown talent (over 40) to feature on All Ageless. With age and experience one insight that becomes crystal clear is the myth that “being known” means you deserved it. That success means you are more relevant, more talented or more significant than others. It does not. You see, people of color, artists of color receive significantly less support than others. It is imperative that anyone, ourselves included, who has a platform take the time to reach out and find these gifted contributors of humanity. 

It was never my intention to open this article with race because it is about an artist. Not the artist’s color. But this week marks one in countless murders of a black man.

It was never my intention to open this article with race because it is about an artist. Not the artist’s color. But May 25th marked one in countless murders of a black man. That man’s name is George Floyd. While Chukes and I had scheduled his interview prior to the murder, I could not imagine a better man to tell his story in the face of what I term deeper than evil. 

On the day of our interview I needed to feel human again. I needed to believe in something before getting forced into hate, rage, and apathy. We all do. Chukes was the perfect vessel. Unfortunately, we had technical issues with the video recording, but I wish you could see his gentle eyes and hear his melodic voice. It is elegant, certain, and vulnerable in ways I found cathartic. Listening to Chukes is like being wrapped in a blanket and swayed back and forth into a dream. A dream where anything is possible. 

Audrey
Let’s start off, right where it began for me. I saw your piece of the woman with the target on her pregnant belly. Now, I have my interpretation of what I felt when I looked at that piece. And my experience of being with that piece was so emotional. I’d love to hear from you what inspired it and what it means to you. 

Target Practice, Chukes
Target Practice

Chukes
The piece is titled “Target Practice.” I’ve done this piece as a part of an exhibition that I started in 2016, and the exhibition is titled Identity Theft. As a result of the killings right at the end of President Obama’s presidency, there was an influx of murders amongst young black males. One of them happened here in Pasadena, California. My wife and I were driving down the road and we saw a group of protesters and I asked my wife, “What is going on here?” And she said, “That’s Black Lives Matter.”

And it hit me, it made me question what was I as an artist, doing about what I was seeing.

And it hit me, it made me question what was I, as an artist, doing about what I was seeing? So “Target Practice” came as a result of the work that I’ve done for Identity Theft. I have almost 50 pieces in this particular exhibition. I’ve been showing it since 2000. And since 2016, I’ve shown in quite a few places throughout California, a few places out of the state, but “Target Practice” was probably one of the last pieces that I did. It was a vision that just came to me of a mother who is pregnant with a son who is a target before he even comes out of the womb. I wanted to make it as simple as I possibly could. So you wouldn’t have to really think about what it meant to you, you pretty much see its meaning head on.

Audrey
Yes. Your intention was definitely received and translated exactly as you meant it. Was the choice of having her face whited out, was that the whitewashing or the European pressure on black women and what they go through?

I mean, this child inside of this woman’s womb hasn’t been born yet. Doesn’t matter what color they are, but they’re already a target.

Chukes
You really studied that piece, and I truly appreciate that. Because it was significant that I left the face alone. I mean, she’s obviously black, but sometimes we forget who we are, what color we are, where we come from, our history, our heritage. Even if you look a person right in the face, you can say, you know, you come from African origins, but maybe they have forgotten that. The two go together. I mean, this child inside of this woman’s womb hasn’t been born yet. Doesn’t matter what color they are, but they’re already a target. It’s international. Whatever color you are, you’re targeted in some way or another. 

Audrey
It’s an incredible, incredible piece. Tell me about the piece that you have of the mother holding her child. 

Chukes
Well, that’s an interesting piece because people think that it’s the mother, but actually it is the father. A lot of people mistake my work for being androgynous and it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just how I feel. I don’t use models. I just create what comes in my head. So it’s gonna look like what it looks like. If that’s how you interpret it, that’s fine. 

But for me being a black father, to my daughter, it was symbolic, symbolic of me showing that I’m not gonna let this happen to the next generation. That’s why I put the hands on there and the hands are veins to show they’re strong and they’re powerful. They’re gripping that baby with intention. The baby is happy, not terrified, not in pain, not struggling but those hands are like—you will not get this child from me. There is nothing on earth you can do, you will have to kill me, pry my hands away from me to get this child. I will never let it go. And that should be a metaphor about the way I feel about it. I’m not going to give in to the brutality that white America decides that they want to put on black America. As an artist, I can no longer stand for that. And I use my art as my platform to speak out against it.

But for me being a black father, to my daughter, it was symbolic, symbolic of me showing that I’m not gonna let this happen to the next generation.

Audrey
You know, it’s so amazing because I’m looking at this piece now as I’m talking to you, and the realization that it was a man and it’s a father relationship speaks volumes to who you are as an artist. I think what struck me most just looking at it the first time is that you don’t see the body. It’s cloaked and the physical form is nurturing. So I assumed, “mother.”

But now I see a layer of how we as a society do not see black men as nurturing because that’s not the narrative that’s put out there. There’s nothing in terms of storytelling or visual storytelling, as a body of work that shows black men, black fathers, as compassionate, loving, and nurturing, which is intentional.

I am a man that is totally aware of my human emotions.

Chukes
Well, the media has always portrayed black males as being these brutal savages that don’t have the ability to love and show compassion. I’m strongly against all of that. I am a man who is totally aware of my human emotions. If I break down crying, there’s an awful good reason for me to do it. It makes me a stronger man, I don’t have the John Wayne mentality of what a man is supposed to be. I don’t let the media dictate what I believe. There is no definition of what a male is other than human anatomy. So for me, if I’m able to create the way I create, I have to tap into all my emotions. The emotions that I tap into have always come from the females, from the women in my life. Because the women, for me, have never been afraid to show their emotions. Never. 

My mother, I mean, who’s the greatest artist I know, she recognized my skills before I knew that I was going to be an artist. She would call me Michelangelo, before I even knew who Michelangelo was. She knew what each one of her sons were going to be. I was raised with a mother who was just an incredible woman. As for the absent black male, that is a myth. My mother and father are still married, and have been married over 65 years. 

You know that I can’t stand where they always leave the male out. They never want to show man in a positive role. I’m totally against that. That’s not the life that I grew up in.

Audrey
Yes, it’s definitely a statement, leaving the males out, because it’s not even an emasculation of the black male. It is like a cleansing. It’s like writing them out of history, methodically. 

Another piece, the piece with the bondage wrappings. Tell me about that one.

Chukes
Yes, that piece is titled “The Subliminal Man.” That’s one of the first pieces I did in my Identity Theft exhibit. Now you see the straps and they are laid on the male body and the male body’s head is in a subservient position, where the head is face down. But if you look at the back view of the hands, you can see that the hands look as if they’re wrapped as well in bondage. But if you were to see the piece in person and look closely at that piece, you would see that the hands are not in bondage, the straps are just laid there. Just laid on the hands and on the body. They’re not tightly wrapped or bound around them. So what the piece means and why I call it “Subliminal Man,” is because it’s a metaphor for people thinking we’re in bondage. And all that sculpture says is all human beings have these so called straps around and all we have to do is just lift our hands up, and the straps will just fall right off. But the subliminal message has become so strong now. So strong, it’s been so embedded in us for centuries, believing that we’re in bondage, and we’re not. All we have to do is lift our hands away, and we will be free. But we have to understand the power of these subliminal messages, and how false they are, what people are saying about us, about the community, about black men. 

Audrey
That is an amazing piece. You work a lot with hair, what are you communicating?

Chukes 
Just my love for humanity. When I’m creating obviously I’m watching my hands and watching what incredible instruments that they are. You have to be aware. I’m ultra aware and sensitive when I’m creating. I’ve never been more tapped into the universe than when I’m creating. At that moment I’m at the height of my sensibilities as a human being. I understand that and I want to incorporate those ideals in there. 

I’ve never been more tapped into the universe than when I’m creating. At that moment I’m at the height of my sensibilities as a human being.

I remember once when I was in college, the beginning of college, I was recruited as an athlete in track and field. That’s how I received my first scholarship at San Jose State University. I remember that I sat in class one day in ceramics. They didn’t think I was serious about art because I was an athlete. Well, I was actually there because I was an artist and I wanted to learn. So we were having a critique, and the instructor went around and asked everyone what they were going to make and he kind of skipped over me. But I decided I was going to make my hand. So I remember I told my classmate next to me, and she said, “That’s the hardest thing to make, you should try and make something else.” And I’m like, you have no idea who you’re speaking to. I didn’t say that to her. But in my head, I’m like, you’re prejudging me. You haven’t even given me a chanc,e but you’re just looking at me and you’re just thinking this is a joke. I went to practice, and after practice I would come back to the class and no one was there and I made the hand. A couple days later, we had to critique my hand. I walked in class and everybody was looking at the hand, and they said, “There must have been some visiting artists that came in to make it.” So when the critique went around, everybody talked about what they did. I remember my instructor, once again, kind of avoiding me, thought he was doing me a favor by avoiding me. Then I asked, “What about me?” He said, “Well, what did you do?” I pointed to the hand. And they were like, wait a minute. They laughed. They thought it was funny. My classmates thought it was funny. They thought I was making a joke. I had to explain to them that I actually did this hand. After that day they never looked at me the same way again. I thought that they would get it, that here’s a black male athlete that has  skills as an artist, but you still won’t give me credit for that. 

The Hand, Chukes 1982

Audrey
Do you still have that hand?

Chukes
Actually, I do I have it at my parents’ house in San Jose, California. I did it in 1982. Yes, it’s still there. 

Audrey
Wow. That’s incredible.

Tell me about your mother’s work.

I realized that not only was this my first understanding of art, it was also my first understanding of sculpture.

Chukes
The first instance of me understanding who I was as an artist was watching my mother. She would sew a lot. She would sew all of my brother’s and my clothes. Once when I was around 5 or 6, and I was watching my mother sew these clothes, she stopped and started to draw something. I’d never seen a drawing before. I asked, “What are you doing?” She says, “Oh, I’m having trouble with this particular jacket I’m making and I need to draw something out.” And I’m like, “Wow, mom, you did this?” And she says, “Yeah. I do a lot of drawings.” And so she came back with some other drawings that she did. And I’m like, “Wow, mom, can I have a pencil and some paper?” I realized that not only was this my first understanding of art, it was also my first understanding of sculpture. Because my mother took these clothes from a two-dimensional form on a piece of paper to a three-dimensional form where my brothers and I could now wear the clothes. I watched this process, and I’m just this young child, but I remembered how profound an effect that had on me. 

Audrey
Are you working on your next show?

Chukes 
Ah, well, I have to tell you, the show that I’m working on now is a continuing show (Identity Theft). And as I said, I have more than 50 pieces of art. I’ve written a book titled “Identity Theft.” I have a catalog titled “Identity Theft.” I’m in the process of getting published. I just got copyrights for the catalog. The book is being edited right now. And it shows all the work on some of the pieces that you’ve seen on my Facebook that are near and dear to my heart. Because once I started seeing the story I told you about the black killings, I started doing this body of work, and it’s been the most spiritual body of work that I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve never felt connected to a higher source than I have while doing this work.

I’m a nonviolent human being. I find that my strongest voice is through what I create. But my biggest hindrance is the fact that I’ve tried to show this show to some of the major museums, and they’ve denied me. I don’t think that this work is threatening, because none of my work I believe is threatening. It’s all a learning tool. I’ve had about six showings and each time I have seen people come in and transform when they left. Or they come in and see the work and they start crying immediately. They get it. I’ve seen people get up and walk out. They couldn’t deal with it. People are afraid to ask questions. I’ve seen an epiphany of all types of responses. I’ve never had that happen to me in any group of work that I’ve ever done other than the Identity Theft shows. And I’m continuing to show it and will not stop.

Audrey

I want to know more about when you say creating is like being channeled, like there’s a message that you’re receiving and you’re putting that message into form, which is you and your mother’s shared talent. What do you think the message is? 

Chukes
Well, you said something at the beginning of our conversation that was very important, and it’s about age. (Chukes is referencing my pre-interview introduction to All Ageless.) As I get older and wiser, excuse me, I begin to not give a fuck. And I’ve never felt that way in my life. But I’m not saying that in a negative and derogatory way. I’m saying it in a way that as a young person in their 20s, I couldn’t talk to myself. I couldn’t communicate with myself…But this age thing that we have, it’s totally ridiculous. Because if I was going to get brain surgery, there is no way I will let a 16-year-old person or a 26-year-old person operate on my brain. 

I need to make sure, because I’m only going to be here for a while, like you said, for a short while on this planet. As a black artist, which I have done my history on—many of us, history has distorted what we have done and left a lot of it out, and I never want that to happen to me. I have work that I’ve done in the third grade that has been documented. And some I still have, because I want people to know my legacy. The one thing I’m going to be remembered for when I leave this world is what I do. Civilizations are known by two things, what they create, and what they destroy.

How do you want to be remembered?

You can find more information on Chukes, on his website: www.ChukesArt.com

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