In Boston, art rising from the depths

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BOSTON – The East Boston shipyard on the harbor is home to a mix of shipping businesses, from ship repairs to a robotic start-up for autonomous navigation. Since 2018, art has also found a perch 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 beautiful spring day, stopping during the installation of his new monumental sculpture inaugurated on July 3, artist Firelei Báez contemplated the earlier history of the port: the American immigration station, where the people with bad papers or suspected of having a contagious disease. until the 1950s. The Boston Tea Party, so celebrated in the history of picture books. And less recognized, two centuries of ships sailing from here, funded by Boston’s elite, to move goods and human possessions around the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

“It’s such a palimpsest,” Báez said, looking over the water to the downtown skyline. “Thinking of the centuries of development that happened here – what was negotiated to make this happen, what was given and what was taken? “

The terms of the story – what is said, what is left out, what survives erasure in culture and psyche – are central to the concerns of Báez, 40, born in the Dominican Republic and alive. At New York. His language of exploring it is both serious and exuberant.

In many of her paintings, for example, she reproduces old maps that depict trade and development from the perspective of the victors, then paints blazing tropical colors and fantastic figures – including ciguapas, forest creatures from folklore. Dominican who wander with ambiguous intentions.

His sculptural installations are also rooted in history but unfold like poetry.

In the watershed, it works in both modes. A massive mural takes the visitor into a swollen seascape where a ciguapa adorned with wild foliage seems to be walking on the waves. Parts of an 18th century map of the Atlantic coast are visible, with Boston Harbor in an inset.

Beyond the wall painting rises the sculptural component: an architecture of inclined walls and arches, as if it emerges from the indigo hue of the seabed, dotted with barnacles. A perforated canopy covers the space, such as the ocean surface or the night sky.

The installation references Sans-Souci, a once majestic palace in Haiti that marks a period of possibility but also of 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 eventful, ending in suicide in 1820; the palace was devastated by an earthquake in 1842.

“The vision is that it emerges from the Atlantic,” Báez said of its construction. “It’s something that crosses this watershed and looks outside the marina at how things got built.” She titled the project “Breathe Fully and Freely: A Statement, Review, 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 of the exhibition site.

Haiti, where Báez also has family roots, has played a heroic and tragic role in black and Atlantic history. The first black republic, it paid dearly for independence, forced France to repay the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars for the loss of French sugar and coffee plantations – a burden lifted only in 1947.

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

These slippery meanings appeal to Báez: they suggest the possibility of alternate stories. Ruins recur in his work – a sculpture of a flickering arch, for example, was shown in 2019-2020 on the High Line. Each iteration, she said, is a way to continually reaffirm the importance of the Caribbean, its resources and its people, to the history of the world.

She likened her approach to critical storytelling, scholar Saidiya Hartman’s term to describe her own method of writing black stories by imagining beyond the archives.

Báez’s art is connected. Since graduating with her Masters of Fine Arts from Hunter College in 2010, she has made a solo breakthrough at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in 2015, winning prestigious awards and works acquired by many museums.

She has won the admiration of her fellow artists, especially black and Caribbean women whom she considers predecessors and pioneers, but who see her as a peer.

“She was a beast of the jump,” said Elia Alba, the Dominican-American photographer and sculptor. “The beauty of his work 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 a faux pas in a painting,” said Simone Leigh, another mentor turned colleague.

Halfway through the watershed, with the structure in place – made of moss, plywood, and plaster – Báez was perched on a scissor lift, putting down details. She carefully applied symbols and patterns, using stencils, but also rolled over brownish paint in broad strokes to convey a bit of aging and obscurity.

“I like that it is not precious,” said Eva Respini, the chief curator of the ICA. “She worked – everyone worked – to make it perfect, and here she is painting the house. It is the confidence of an artist who really masters her language.

Back on dry land, Báez offers a sort of glossary. The blue hue, she said, was inspired by adire, the Yoruba technique for dyeing textiles with indigo. A motif was taken from William Morris, the British wallpaper designer, who in turn borrowed from Mughal art. Among the smaller motifs were the sun symbol of the secession of Biafra, a flower in bloom, the black panther, the afro comb.

She pointed out that the symbols traveled and got new meanings. Indigo, she said, carried multiple associations. “You could literally trade a body for a piece of cotton dyed in this material,” the artist said. “But before it was for commercial use and was the engine of industry in the Western world, it was a status symbol.”

Having both Dominican and Haitian roots and having spent his early childhood in a region close to the border of the two countries, Báez grew aware of the role that visual culture can play in the imposition of social barriers – notably in colourism. which she recalls as being widespread in the Dominican Republic and stoking anti-Haitian prejudices.

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

After graduation, Báez would take daily self-portraits – a brunette figure with curls and just filled eyes. She titled the series “Can I Pass?” Introducing the paper bag to the ventilator test. He was referring to crude methods that applied colourism – a bias towards fair skin and “good hair” – in places like the Dominican Republic or New Orleans.

Ultimately, she said, the exercise felt like self-harm. She described the bright, lively colors for which she is now known as a kind of antidote to the gloomy racial hierarchy: “I use color as a way to open up worlds,” she said. .

A recent visit to Báez’s studio in the Bronx found her among large canvases. The reds, the greens, the blues were bursting. The palette, she said, is inspired by growing up in the Caribbean and Florida, “with that intense sunlight.”

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

María Elena Ortiz, the curator of PAMM who organized the Báez exhibition there in 2015, said the Afro-Caribbean motifs in her work – another is the tignon, a headgear once imposed on Louisiana Creole women who became a fashion statement – highlighted the power over trauma.

“She is pointing the finger at the resistance and the stories of power that have always been present,” Ortiz said. She added: “It’s a very refreshing conversation.”

In working with cards, Baez finds cheesy joy. She collects old books from which she will pull a page and work directly on them. She once redrawn the cards by hand, but now prefers to transfer high-quality enlarged scans to canvas that replicate the creases and smears of the original.

In the studio, she showed a canvas prepared in this way with a diagram of global migratory flows in 1858. A few islands were missing, she pointed out – among them Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. – as if the cartographer denied their existence.

“It’s a job in its own right,” she laughed. “It’s ready!” She hesitated to paint on it, to erase the erasure.

At the watershed, Baez incorporates audio – whispered memories of migration and home brought by residents of Boston and beyond, as well as marine sounds. Visitors will hear them as they pass under the arches. “With the smells of the marina, the breeze passing by, I wanted the sound to trigger something beyond a narrative,” she said.

His submerged palace is also a dream portal.

“I think time itself is a sense that limits us,” Báez said. She hoped that through her art “we are jostled out of this perception”.

Firelei Baez

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

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