Photography by Chris StrongText by Theaster Gates
Making the wearer part human, part animal, part mythological being, the tabi boot is both a shoe and a transfiguration. The cloven-foot design has become a cult status symbol, sent out by Maison Margiela since 1989 to traverse city streets from Tokyo to Chicago. Traceable back to 15th-century Japan, the tabi – or jika-tabi – started as split-toe socks, thought to stimulate a reflexology point between the toes and encourage better balance and a clearer mind. The socks soon evolved into shoes and became standard footwear across Japan. Over the years, the tabi has taken on new forms and been manufactured in a variety of ways, but all versions have been united in their split-toe design.
Theaster Gates has an extensive personal archive which is photographed here, alongside a newly customised shoe, the first tabi roller skate.
The first time I encountered tabi boots en masse was when a friend and I stopped by the Margiela store in Miami some years ago. I found myself drawn to the quality of the leather, and the simple form of the tabi. It felt elegant – like a house shoe that had its own language. I quickly moved from wanting one pair of the low-cut tabis to wanting the boot, followed by the weirdest iterations. While I’ve never imagined myself as a collector of tabis, it does seem that way now. When I like something, I buy it over and over. I have accidentally built a collection.
It's partly because of my affinity for Japan and the workers’ shoes I had seen there, but also because I love how fashion takes an everyday thing and turns it up, I’m drawn to how Margiela made people look at this cultural object in a new light. I feel like my artistic practice does something similar. It doesn’t feel like a contradiction to me; it feels like a process of lifting up things that speak to us. It is very mingei. It recognises that something meant for ordinary people and everyday life has the potential to be something sophisticated, circulating in culture. Creatives have the ability to see where beauty lives, and they often shine a light on the cultural nuances that might otherwise go overlooked or underappreciated.
There were a few things on my mind when I decided to convert the tabis into roller skates. Tabis and skates are two things I love. The combination of functionality with the flamboyance you might see at The Rink on the South Side or at Hot Wheels, the West Side skating rink I grew up going to in Chicago, is part of the heart and soul of everyday Black folk. I wanted to capture some of that.
In the same way I’m highlighting the importance of elevating everyday culture: grabbing the Margiela shoes and pulling them over into Black space allows for a reversal of sorts. The process of going from construction boots to a pair of skates completes what I would consider Afro-mingei. It has been filtered through Blackness and arrests high culture. That synthesis feels very much like an Afro-mingei move. ◉