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Reframing Caribbean culture: Firelei Báez

This month, we are bringing you a two-part special series highlighting two artists currently being featured at the 59th Venice Biennale.

Muzidi Calabi Yau Space (or a matter of navigation), 2022

Firelei Báez (b.1981) is a painter and sculptor whose practice reframes Caribbean culture through beautiful, surrealist works inspired by mythology and Caribbean folk tales.

Báez (a product of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the United States) has become one of the most influential artists of her generation. Her practice, which has a decidedly activist component, challenges dominant narratives of the Caribbean’s culture and its people. She revisits and re-presents inherited stories and identities, treating them as in a state of flux. By superimposing fresh new images filled with meaning on top of often flawed historical documents and maps, Baez promotes agency in the telling of the Caribbean story by Caribbean people.

“The freedom that I offer in each painting is in the mutable body. In having bodies in constant transition, it leaves it open for the viewer to shift ideas of power. In that process, you shift the world around you. That’s where beauty can be subversive”

Image credit: Kyle Dorosz

Firelei Báez was born in Santiago de los Cabelleros, Dominican Republic, to a Dominican mother and Haitian father. Proclaiming their independence from Spanish colonists in 1821, the Dominican Republic was united with Haiti in 1822. For 22 years, the two nations were jointly governed, until the Dominican Republic declared independence in 1844. Since then, the two countries have been experiencing ongoing tensions. Today, the Dominican Republic culture is predominantly a mix of Native Taino, European (mainly Spanish) and African cultures.

Báez grew up on the border of Haiti and Dominican Republic. At an early age, she showed her creativity, cutting paper dolls and binding her own books. She was encouraged by her mother, a skilled seamstress, who taught her how to sow and encouraged her artistic inclinations. Báez’s family moved to the United States when she was eight years old and continued moving once they arrived. She found stability by transforming her room, taking control of her space.

Growing up in the United States, Báez often heard shallow critiques stating the Caribbean had no history. People would say that due to the transatlantic Slave Trade and the many storms that destroyed architecture, Caribbean people do not have rich historical records of ancestry and place. Báez analyzed this notion with other creatives and writers who questioned these misconceptions, and decided to incorporate her views in her art.

Firelei Báez is deeply concerned with the History of the Caribbean, its politics, culture, and her own heritage. In her work, she reframes the common narrative of victimhood that is easy to fall into when engaging in conversation about colonization and slavery. In that sense, she is shifting the dynamic of powers. She references in her early works the flawed scientific research on the “New World” fauna and flora by colonial taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. His work depicts Black and Brown bodies as beast-like, placing them next to fantastical creatures or animals in drawings. Báez takes these often flawed historical documents (which also include maps) and paints on top of them, adding embellishments and superimposing beautiful images inspired by Dominican folklore. She aims to present images of Caribbean culture from a Caribbean’s point of view, and in doing so, reframes the narrative in a powerful way.

Untitled (Le Jeu du Monde), 2020

A recurring motif or theme of Báez’s work is the ciguapa, a feminine figure with backward feet, wearing long and lustrous hair coming down to her feet. She discovered this figure as a child and has been fascinated by it ever since. Traditionally, the ciguapa is seen as a trickster, a seductress. She is associated with subverting moral codes and is a figure to be feared. Báez sees parallels with how Black and Brown women are seen by some. One could also see parallels with Witches in European cultures. Báez depicts the ciguapa not as a trickster to be feared, but as a beautiful, sensitive, independent being. She paints the ciguapa wearing local Caribbean flora, depicted in an intricate and precise way, with an abundance of lustruous hair, delivering a hyperrealist, surrealist, and fantastical image. These works are layering history: putting two versions together to create a connection between the Western world and the West Indies.

Untitled (A map of the British Empire in America), 2021

In 2021, one of Báez’s largest sculptures and immersive installations was exhibited at the ICA Boston. The installation staged an underwater, imagined world with a sculpture of the Palace of Sans-Soucis, an existing building currently located in the northern kingdom of Haiti since the 1813, enclosed with a shimmering sky or water border created with blue tarp. Exploring the connection between Caribbean and the global world, Baez created this monumental immersive installation to layer history, and offering a different approach to it. Decorated with barnacles and images from different cultures (e.g. African combs, Black Panther logo, the Biafran lion), the artist shows how deep, rich, and multicultural the Caribbean is. This installation opens a discussion about the history of the Caribbean, its deep connection with the world and engages physically with the viewer's senses.

To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction, 2021

One of her most recent works is currently exhibited at the 59th Venice Biennale’s The Milk of Dreams exhibition. The monumental piece represents the Afro-futurist Drexciya utopia that imagines the existence of fantastical beings underwater, descendants of women who perished during the Middle Passage. The myth imagines the children of those women surviving underwater and creating a new water-breathing, subaqueous empire. In this work, Báez mixes abstract and figurative, with women's bodies swimming toward the middle of the painting, encrusted with salt crystal and barnacles.

Muzidi Calabi Yau Space (or a matter of navigation), 2022

Firelei Báez is represented by James Cohan Gallery in New York City. In addition to the exhibitions mentioned above, Báez’s work has also shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the 2018 Berlin Biennale, and the Studio Museum of Harlem. Her work is collected by major institutions like the Tate Museum in London and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Since 2017, eleven of Báez’s works have sold at auction for an average of $46,000 per piece, in most cases well above estimates.

Watch Firelei Báez discuss her artistic practice:


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