Firelei Báez’s Intoxicating Installation Is a Feminist Ode to the African Diaspora — Julia Wolkoff

Artsy, 05.15.2019

Lift the ragged hem of the blue tarp framing the entryway to James Cohan’s Grand Street gallery and you’ll find yourself in a quixotic, tented fantasy. As your eyes adjust to the dim light filtered through the perforated tarp and a second layer of printed mesh, the gentle perfume of incense wafts toward your nose. It’s a sensual experience, though a slightly jarring transition from the cold, white-walled front desk area.
This dreamy fishbowl is the crux of

’s current solo exhibition, “A Drexcyen Chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways),” on view through June 16th. The gorgeous (dare I say “immersive”) installation takes its title from the Detroit techno duo Drexciya. Their

concept albums from the 1990s and 2000s imagined a utopian underwater world populated by the descendants of pregnant slaves thrown overboard during journeys through the Middle Passage.

This heady origin story exemplifies the Dominican-born, New York–based artist’s interest in weaving together history and myth in order to tease out—or complicate—dominant narratives about female identity, migration, and the Afro-Caribbean experience. The installation, an off-puttingly comforting and relaxing environment, serves as a “safe space” in which varied cultures can come together to connect.
As Jared Quinton wrote for Artsy in 2016, Báez’s “subject matter could be didactic in the wrong hands, but she sidesteps that risk with her focus on beauty, engagement, and emotion, seducing viewers into a contemplative space in which to confront them with painful histories.”
The overwhelming nature of the azure installation is certainly enchanting—but it’s convoluted, too. The artist relishes in smudging our linear conceptions of time and experience, and her show collapses different histories of migration to evince an ongoing, reciprocal exchange—a flow of bodies and ideologies. Accordingly, “A Drexcyen Chronocommons” abounds with probing contradictions and overlapping meanings.
The blue tarp that shapes the space is a material commonly used for temporary shelters, and here, it serves as a dual symbol of disaster and refuge. Underneath the tarp—its perforations allow soft, dappled light to shine through—is a mesh material patterned with a map of the stars as they appeared in the night sky at the onset of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). On its sides, various diasporic symbols of resistance butt against a mix of real and fake tropical plants.
The Haitian Revolution—and its often-unacknowledged impact on the geopolitical landscape of the 19th century—is a historic moment that the artist returns to in many of her works. Here, it’s a centralizing reference point for the layered histories and ideas she presents.
The all-encompassing blue of the room, for instance, suggests an oceanic quality that recalls the broader history of the

and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It also references Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant’s theory of the ocean as a repository for collective memory. At the same time, the color prods and unravels the concept of “the true-blue American.” The indigo-dyeing technique for blue jeans, gallery partner David Norr noted, originally came from West Africa and India.