I speak to Firelei Báez, the young, immensely prolific artist on the occasion of her current exhibit Bloodlines on view at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. In Bloodlines, Báez tells a rich, poignant story interweaving geography, immigration, race, black femininity, and past Caribbean and American political histories. Comprised of paintings, drawings, installation, and sculpture, the works vary in scale and bloom with magic, color intensity, and meticulous detail. Autobiographical elements as well as re-imagined folklore flow thoughtfully throughout the show creating a warm, welcoming space. Bloodlines will be on view through March 6, 2016 at the Pérez Art Museum.
Gallery Gurls: Miami being a Latin American mecca in the US and a gateway to the Caribbean, what personal and professional significance does it hold for you to have Bloodlines exhibited there?
Firelei Báez: I was partially raised in Miami, so this exhibition feels like an emotionally resonant homecoming. From the outset, I knew that I wanted to respond to the specific architecture of the Pérez Art Museum, and that I wouldn’t be able to do this—to the extent that I wanted to—in my small East Harlem studio. So in preparation, I relocated my entire studio to Miami for the year. There I was able to find a space large enough to view my different bodies of work together, see how they interacted, and create a whole new series within that context. I set out from the start of Bloodlines wanting to pare down the parameters I usually allow myself in the making and conceptualizing of artwork. This is also my first exhibition with a full-color bilingual catalogue that will give the ideas within my work as clear a visual and textual form/context as possible, and will be accessible to whole new audiences.
Hybridity runs fluidly throughout your work – identifying as a Caribbean and American woman and the duality of your Dominican/Haitian heritage – can you expand on these perspectives and what roles they play?
There is a long tradition of disguise, of having to choose between binary choices for people of color within the totalitarian narrative of identity in the US. From my experience, some of the art promoted by established Caribbean galleries for regional consumption usually exists within a closed, but richly multi-faceted, geographic system, ignoring global politics. Afro-Caribbean artists raised in the US are often interested in a global context. Because we come from places without fixed identities, we are often able to make connections to all kinds of different things and see ourselves as being part of a larger global diaspora, including the African-American discourse. However, this discourse, because of its geographic and linguistic history, tends to preclude Caribbean blackness, ignoring the fact that there were more Africans brought to the island of Martinique alone than in the entirety of the American South, if you don’t count those brought before the Louisiana Purchase.
With that said, the Dominican Republic, Latin spaces, Caribbean spaces, are very racist and in a way, the Afro communities there are completely disenfranchised, and the African-American discourse really helps. It is a tool of empowerment and something to emulate. When Obama was elected, one had the feeling that he was winning for you because he was also “the other.” Caribbean’s theories actively informed resistance movements here in the US, but that same momentum never really took off, or was reciprocated there. The Haitian Revolution started the promise of something, was the first expression of something that was unable to be realized until black resistance and black art movements, like the Harlem Renaissance, in the US. I feel a generation of artists like myself are actively working toward creating a different level of discourse between the United States and the Caribbean. My series like Can I Pass, Geographic Delay, Not Even Unalterable Limitations, and most recently, Bloodlines all make evident the connections that have always been there between Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American arts and culture.
In the installation Can I Pass? Introducing the brown paper bag to the fan test for the month of June (2011), you address classic pillars of racism such as colorism and racial phenotypes by casting yourself as the subject. How did your personal experiences in the Caribbean and the US inform this work?
I grew up knowing that I was part of a very slippery in-between space of binary-defying identities, which is the construction of race in the Caribbean, not fitting easily into one category. I went into this project thinking that if I have to lock myself down into something, if I have to see myself through a specific filter, as many people of color are forced to in the US, what would it be like? Portraiture, which has a very clear history in Western tradition, seemed like the ideal medium to talk about these contested issues. The Brown Bag Test, a practice that has a history as far back as the early twentieth century, attempts to categorize the Western canon of beauty. In that series, I retained the gaze out of a need for personal agency, to act as a counterbalance to the inherent psychic violence in those two tests.
Beyond that, this project was more of a formal exercise, a warm up to start my day at the studio—a setup with rigorous parameters where the environment provided the only flexibility (humidity and light quality can radically affect perception), but also a subtle means of showing the fallibility of these tests to begin with. Artist Lorna Simpson has a series I love called Five Day Forecast (1991) where she alludes to similar ideas through a photographic process.
The Ciguapa seems to be a fascinating creature, a sort of enchanting seductress derived from Dominican folklore known for her duplicitous ways. What led you to depict her as a grotesque, mutated figure with animal characteristics in Ciguapa Pantera?
The Ciguapa Series began after I graduated from Cooper Union in 2004, at a point where I felt I had the freedom to return to figuration. I have always been struck, and made more aware of as a little kid trying to learn English, by the gendering of romance languages, where the feminine is always conceptualized as passive i.e. silla/chair, luna/moon, montaña/mountain—a feminine ideal lover patiently waits to be activated. On the school bus in Miami I passed a city sign that had a quote by José Martí that said “las palmas son novias que esperan” (the palms are waiting brides). As a teenager, this placid ideal seemed like the antithesis of the dynamic, self-sufficient women I was raised and surrounded by. The folktales I was told as a child all countered this ideal as well; specifically that of the Ciguapa, a female trickster story from my birthplace Hispaniola, which was really generative to the conceptualizing of the Ciguapa Series. She is described as a feminine creature/archetype from nature/the wilderness. In her stories, she is a total badass, virtually untraceable because of her backwards legs, able to use her power for good or evil, to break generational karmic loads like those Junot Diaz suggests in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The initial artworks started out as smaller test-cardlike silhouettes that then became more elaborate, larger forms. Both were meant to act as open signifiers upon which viewers could project their own meaning. The figure can either be a fierce, elusive creature or a passive houseplant gathering dust in a corner. For me, they acted as visual/linguistic antonyms, to showcase the psychological and even metaphysical defenses people before me had built against linguistic and cultural invasions. These works were propositions, meant to create alternate pasts and potential futures, questioning history and culture in order provide a space for reassessing the present in ways similar to Octavia Butler’s science fiction.
In the works Demetrea and Anayansi from your series Geographic Delay, modern black women (dancers from NYC’s West Indian Parade) are outfitted in festive garb referencing aspects of their multi-layered Caribbean ancestry. What are you communicating to the viewer in regards to their bodies and their sartorial choices?
When working on this series I was trying to deconstruct some of the big, essentializing narratives that surround ideas of the Caribbean. With the understanding, as in Antonio Benítez Rojo’s writing, of the body as the only witness that remains for people who have been robbed of their own histories. As a Brooklynite, I love going to see the West Indian American Day parade every year. It is a carnival that, like most new world carnivals, consists of bodies being seen as Afro-European performing constructed American Indian identities—wearing intricate feather headdresses, costumes, and footwear. This act seemed like a safeguard against the painful histories of colonialism and slavery. Everyone from grandparents, little kids, fat, skinny, gay, or straight people are joyously represented. I wanted to showcase in each portrait the nuanced histories and inherent strength present in these people.
In Those Who Would Douse It, you investigate loaded issues such as European imperialism, post-colonialism, Haitian nationalism and natural disasters, what prompted you to engage in these concepts?
This portrait is first and foremost an intuitive response to a lived experience. It is actually inspired by one of the silhouettes from my Can I Pass series, which in the making process later became more of a portrait of Hispaniola for me, encompassing the shared experience of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
New works from the Carib’s Jhator series are included in the current Trust Memory Over History exhibit. The women in these fiercely vibrant paintings gaze intently at the viewer. Who are these characters and what do they represent?
A jhator is a Buddhist meditative and funerary practice meant to release spirit from the physical body. Unlike the Ciguapa series, where it is all about the visceral physical self, the paintings in Carib’s Jhator are meant to act more as an abstraction, vacillating between volume and void. With the idea that for centuries the descendants of the black diaspora in the new world could rely only their physical selves, I wanted to introduce the jhator’s point of release to my work, to make room for these black bodies outside this heavy lineage. Itʼs hard to leave your body behind though, especially when your body is always being thrown up in your face. The question is: How to remove weight, to move toward lightness? How to do this while still acknowledging the particular history of a body that has often been used as the only cultural capital? Going beyond it as a kind of psychic release. Itʼs a willful, stubborn hopefulness. The willfulness is expressed as being a part of a living thing with constant cycles, being aware of change and mentally preparing yourself to pull a rabbit out of a hat at a moment’s need. You have to believe that you will have a change or transformation. Nothing should be constant. Growing up as an urban nomad—willfully believing that change was going to happen and that it was going to be positive—in a way, it just gives hope. The only way to keep oneʼs agency is to have hope.