June 5, 2023

BOSTON – The East Boston shipyard on the harbor is home to a mix of maritime endeavors, from ship repair to a robotics start-up for autonomous navigation. Since 2018, art has also found its place here, in the Watershed, the exhibition hall that the Institute of Contemporary Art opened in a former copper and sheet metal factory.

But on a bright spring day, artist Firelei Báez reflected on the port’s earlier history during the installation of her monumental new sculpture, which opened on July 3rd: the US immigration station, where people with bad papers or suspected contagious Disease persisted until the 1950s. The Boston Tea Party, as celebrated in picture book history. And lesser known, two centuries of ships that sailed from here, funded by the Boston elite to carry human belongings across the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

“It’s such a palimpsest,” said Báez, looking over the water at the downtown skyline. “Think of the centuries of development that have happened here – what was negotiated for, what was given and what was taken?”

The concepts of history – what is told, what is left out, what survives the extinction in culture and psyche – are a central concern for Báez, 40, who was born in the Dominican Republic and lives in New York City. Their language for exploring them is serious and exuberant at the same time.

For example, in many of her paintings she reproduces ancient maps depicting commerce and development from the perspective of the winners, and then paints them in flamboyant tropical colors and fantastic figures – especially ciguapas, forest creatures in Dominican folklore who roam with ambiguous intent.

Her sculptural installations are also rooted in history, but unfold as poetry.

At the Watershed she works in both modes. A massive mural leads the visitor into a swelling seascape, in which a ciguapa adorned with wild leaves seems to be walking on the waves. Portions of an 18th century map of the Atlantic coast are visible, with Boston Harbor in an inset.

The sculptural component rises behind the mural: an architecture made up of sloping walls and arches that protrude from the seabed like indigo and are studded with barnacles. A perforated canopy covers the room like the surface of the sea or the night sky.

The installation refers to Sans-Souci, a once majestic palace in Haiti that marks a time of possibility but also sadness in Caribbean history. It was built in 1813 by Henri Christophe, the former slave who became a revolutionary general and then crowned himself king. His reign was turbulent and ended in suicide in 1820; The palace was devastated by an earthquake in 1842.

“The vision is for it to emerge from the Atlantic,” said Báez of its construction. “It’s something that breaks this watershed and looks outside the marina to see how things have been set up.” She titled the project “Breathe freely: a declaration, a revision, a correction” (19º36’16.9 ”N 72º13’07.0”W, 42º21’48.762”N 71º1’59.628”W)” the longitudinal coordinates of the ruin in Haiti and the exhibition site.

Haiti, where Báez also has family roots, played a heroic and tragic role in the history of the Black and Atlantic. The first black republic to pay dearly for independence had to repay France the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars for the loss of French sugar and coffee plantations – a burden that was not lifted until 1947.

Sans-Souci – which means “carefree” – suggested a different historical route in its brief heyday, with its elegant gardens, a place of retreat and entertainment for Queen Marie Louise. But it was loaded from the start: Sans-Souci was also the name of a rival Haitian commander whom Henri Christophe killed.

These slippery meanings attract Báez: they suggest the possibility of alternative stories. The ruins return in their work – for example, a sculpture of a lurching arch was shown on the High Line in 2019-20. Each iteration, she said, is a way of reaffirming the importance of the Caribbean, its resources, and its people in world history.

She compared her approach to critical fabulation, the term used by the scholar Saidiya Hartman to describe her own method of writing black stories by introducing herself beyond the archive.

Báez’s art connects. Since receiving her MFA from Hunter College in 2010, she had a breakout solo at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in 2015, won prestigious awards and has been earned by many museums.

She has gained admiration from fellow artists – especially black and Caribbean women, whom she regards as predecessors and trailblazers, but who they regard as peers.

“She was a beast from the jump,” said Elia Alba, the Dominican-American photographer and sculptor. “The nice thing about her job is that it’s not about categories. It presents gray areas, spaces that express the intersectionality of who we are. “

“She doesn’t seem to be making the wrong move in a painting,” said Simone Leigh, another mentor who became a colleague.

In the middle of the installation on the Watershed, with the structure made of foam, plywood and plaster, Báez sat on a scissor lift and added details. She has carefully applied symbols and patterns with stencils, but also rolled them onto a brownish color in broad gestures to convey some aging and cloudiness.

“I think it’s great that it is not precious,” said Eva Respini, chief curator of the ICA, with a view. “She worked – everyone worked – to make it perfect, and here she smeared some house paint. That is the self-confidence of an artist who really has her language under control. “

Back on solid ground, Báez offered a kind of glossary. The blue shade was inspired by Adire, the Yoruba technique for dyeing indigo textiles. One pattern comes from William Morris, the British wallpaper designer who, in turn, borrowed from Mughal art. The smaller motifs included the sun symbol of the Biafra secession, a flower blossom, the black panther, the Afro comb.

She indicated that symbols traveled and given new meanings. Indigo, she said, has several associations. “You could literally swap a body for a cotton ball dyed with this material,” said the artist. “But before it became commercially important and fueled industry in the western world, it was a status symbol.”

With Dominican and Haitian roots and an early childhood in a region near the border between the two countries, Báez grew up aware of the role visual culture can play in enforcing social barriers – especially in terms of the colorism it remembers widespread in the Dominican Republic and fuel anti-Hait prejudice.

“Dominicans have this slippery language about skin tone,” said Báez. “You’re caramel, cinnamon, all the different foods – but not black.” After moving to Florida with her mother and siblings at the age of 8, the distance helped her unlearn. “To be absent means to have the space to say, I don’t want to perpetuate this language or this violence.”

After graduation, Báez took self-portraits every day – a brown silhouette with curls and only the eyes that filled. She titled the series: “Can I pass? We’re putting the paper bag in a fan test. ”It referred to crude methods that enforced colorism – a preference for light skin and“ good hair ”- in places like the Dominican Republic and New Orleans.

Finally, she said, the exercise felt like self harm. She described the bright, vivid colors for which she is known today as a kind of antidote to the somber racial hierarchy: “I use color to open worlds,” she said.

A recent visit to Báez’s Bronx studio found her surrounded by large canvases. Reds, greens and blues popped. The palette, she said, relates to growing up in the Caribbean and Florida, “with this intense sunlight.”

Ciguapas were also visible. In myth, these creatures have feet that point backwards; she shows them that way too, but hers – bulky, bloated, wild – differ from the nymph-like forms in popular imagery. The average villager, she said, might not recognize her.

María Elena Ortiz, the curator at PAMM who organized Báez ‘exhibition there in 2015, said the Afro-Caribbean motifs in her work – another is the tignon, a headscarf that was once imposed on Creole women in Louisiana and became a fashion statement – emphasized the power over the trauma.

“It points to resistance and power stories that have always been present,” said Ortiz. She added, “This is a very refreshing conversation.”

Báez finds a nerdy delight in working with cards. She collects old books from which she pulls a page and works directly on it. She used to redraw maps by hand, but now she prefers to transfer enlarged, high-quality scans onto canvas that reproduce the creases and stains of the original.

In the studio she showed a canvas prepared in this way with a diagram of the worldwide migrant flows in 1858. Some islands were missing, including Hispaniola, the island divided by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as if the cartographer denied their existence.

“This is a work in itself,” she laughs. “It is finished!” She hesitated to paint over it – to erase the etching.

In the Watershed, Báez integrates audio – mumbled memories of migration and homeland contributed by people in Boston and elsewhere, and the sounds of the sea. Visitors will hear these as they pass under the arches. “With the smells of the marina, the breeze coming through, I wanted to have the sound that triggers something beyond a narrative,” she said.

Her sunken palace is also a dream portal.

“I see time itself as a feeling that limits us,” said Báez. She hoped that her art would “push us out of this perception”.

Firelei Báez

July 3 to September 6, ICA Watershed, Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, East Boston, Massachusetts, icaboston.org.