ICA Boston Presents the First North American Survey of Firelei Báez’s Powerfully Layered Work | lpstrkl.com

ICA Boston Presents the First North American Survey of Firelei Báez’s Powerfully Layered Work

“Art is a tool for navigation, and many times for even just feeling present, the things that I’m trying to give the viewer and things that I’m trying to find for myself,” painter and sculptor Firelei Báez said, explaining her work when she joined members of the press for a walkthrough of a new exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. “The more you look, the more you’ll find.”

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Of all the (rightfully) glowing descriptions heaped on Firelei Báez’s stunning new career-spanning survey, it’s perhaps the artist’s own words that capture her powerfully layered work best. Instantly eye-catching at the offset, Báez’s work rewards time, attention and those who stick around long enough to see what else may reveal itself. “This is a survey of twenty years of work,” said curator Eva Respini, Deputy Director and Director of Curatorial Programs at Vancouver Art Gallery. “This is an artist who, I would say, is just emerging as one of the most important—in my opinion—painters of our time. There’s so much more work that’s to come that will no doubt be amazing.”

The show is Respini’s final exhibit for ICA Boston, where she was chief curator. She describes the exhibit as, “very deeply invested in painting’s capacity for storytelling.” The show is roughly chronological, with the largest number of Báez’s paintings gathered in one place, and the first North American museum survey of her work, covering her two-decade career to date. The exhibition premieres a new large-scale painting which was completed only about a month before the exhibition opened, as well as a site-specific, floor-to-ceiling mural overlooking Boston Harbor.

A woman stands looking at a monumental mural of a colorful woman in an art gallery
Truth was the bridge (or an emancipatory healing), 2024. Mel Taing, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York

Báez’s paintings and sculptures feature vibrant use of color; ornate, textural details; and repeated patterns like birds, afro picks, broken chains, Black Panthers and signs in ASL. It’s easy to fall in love with the bold colors, but don’t forget about the smart details; Báez never does. It would be foolish to think that the artist allows saturation and pleasing complimentary colors to do the heavy lifting. Her work is characterized by layering: of ephemera and paint, of history, folklore and ways of preserving the stories we tell. She tucks detail and meaning in carefully, packing each of her large works full to the brim with lush textures, abstract gestures, varied visual references and overdue reclamations. Like the way the fur of mythical folkloric fauna turns into the wisps of tropical flora, blurring the lines between a Ciguapa and a palm tree, in “Wanderlust demanding recompense” (2015). The hidden treasures within lovingly rendered, at times even photorealistic, curled, coiled, and braided hair.

“As a deep introvert, art was always a place that helped me anchor and find my safety and comfort in every new environment,” the artist explained, referencing her childhood, during which she moved often yet found herself adapting and finding community through art.

Báez uses fiction to explore the all-too-real legacies of colonial rule in the Americas and the Caribbean, drawing on science fiction, fantasy, folklore, Afro-Latinx religion and mythology. By painting over the documentation of hegemony, like colonial maps, Báez is putting her people back into the story, asserting that oral history has value above and beyond outdated texts on Caribbean plant life or literal plans to conquer the so-called New World. “She really challenges notions of perceived histories and thus power,” Respini says. “She is making history paintings for our time, for our era. If you think about the grand, heraldic paintings of European predecessors, those history paintings, she is making those, but for our era.”

A museum exhibition with benches in the room and paintings on the walls
An installation view of “Firelei Báez” at ICA Boston. Mel Taing 2024

Báez and Respini first worked together on a large-scale, site-specific sculptural installation for the ICA’s Watershed location, which Respini also curated. The exhibition “really felt like a natural evolution of our work together, after the successful installation at the Watershed back in 2021,” according to Respini. “As curators of contemporary work, it’s really rare that we get to work on multiple projects with an artist. Usually it goes on to the next, right? And this is a really special circumstance that I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with Firelei on two major projects, and it’s really because the work is so utterly extraordinary.”

Báez was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and a Haitian father, and she grew up on the Dominican side of Hispaniola and in Miami. All of that comes with a very specific racial history, which Báez doesn’t shy away from. One of the exhibit’s best is Can I Pass? Introducing the Paper Bag to the Fan Test for the Month of July (2011) a reference to both the Paper Bag test and the Fan test, racial tests of skin color and hair texture. Báez’s protagonists are predominantly feminine-presenting. Respini says, “They hover somewhere between human, animal, and mythic beings, and these protagonists can be understood as free from fixed categories and as symbols of resistance and renewal.” Expressive eyes are a highlight of the stunning portraits, at times following the viewer around the room. Pieces like “Can I Pass”, which features a month’s worth of self-portraits, make it clear just how skilled Báez is when it comes to rendering eyes. She includes little else in the daily portraits, yet each stands out starkly from those before and after it.

A painting of a woman with striking eyes and tall hair
Fire wood pretending to be fire, February 12, 2012, 2013; Acrylic and gouache on Yupo paper. 25 3/4 × 20 inches (65.4 × 50.8 cm). Collection of Carol Sutton Lewis and William
M. Lewis, Jr. Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York © Firelei Báez

“I want the eyes to be as good as possible,” the artist said. “When you look at them you’re seeing and being seen back. It’s an active engagement and not a passive consumption.” Part of Báez’s project is portraying her subjects as the main characters in their own stories, worthy of inclusion in our history books, not passive sitters or objects for the dominant, imperialist view to judge, consume, and control. It’s clear in their posture; the detail of their clothing, hair and skin; but most of all, in their vivid gaze.

SEE ALSO: How a First-of-Its-Kind Exhibition About African American Artists in the Nordic Countries Came to Be

Firelei Báez’s exacting work is at turns serendipitously poured over Japanese Yupo paper, inviting in chance, or fastidiously painted over documents steeped in colonial history. One might be tempted to say that showstopping is the hallmark of Báez’s work. There are two immersive pieces, as well as an opening large-scale sculpture evocative of Haiti’s Sans-Souci Palace that will feel familiar to those who saw the Watershed installation, though it’s easy to feel an overall sense of immersion throughout the exhibit. Some paintings are up to twenty feet in length, which Respini says gives a “sense of being enveloped in her world.” One of the highlights, A Drexcyen chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways) (2019), takes on the Drexciya myth, an alternative, Afrofuturist retelling of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In ripples of fabric that call to mind how her mother’s career as a seamstress inspired her, objects hang, waiting to be discovered, as light filters through. Báez describes it as “an environment that is meant to make you feel present and alive and brought into your senses,” and she encourages the audience to reflect and feel connected to the space.

Many interpretations are nestled together comfortably, a kind of syncretic harmony. Is her characteristic deep indigo blue meant to evoke the color of the ocean, the night sky, cyanotype printing, the Virgin Mary, the Afro-Latinx religious figure Yamaya (herself associated with the sea), the Tuareg people of North Africa, the indigo plant itself or some combination of all of the above? Yes, and…

As Báez puts it, she views her work as, “A Rorschach, and it’s meant to be co-created by the viewer, and have all your projections really iterate all the details that are in it. I give half, and you guys give half.”

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