For a few months in 2018, Dominican Republic-born, New York-based artist Fierlei Báez immersed herself in the vast archives of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of The New York Public Library. With help from librarians, archivists, and curators at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Báez researched dozens of stories of women of color who had made remarkable contributions to society.
These women inspired Firelei Báez: Joy Out of Fire, a series of dynamic paintings now on view at the Schomburg Center’s Latimer/Edison Gallery. Blending bright colors and portraiture, the paintings serve as a mini history lesson, offering long overdue recognition for a number of activists, writers, artists, dancers, and politicians.
In “To write fire until it is every breath,” the faces of Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, and Ella Baker jump out from a background of plants, dotted patterns, and scrawled cursive words rendered in purples, maroons, and pinks. In “magnitude and bond,” Katherine Dunham, an innovator in modern dance, takes center stage, her white skirt shimmering amongst yellows, browns, and corals. Each painting has a unique palette and creates a distinct world for its figures. Báez also plays with dramatic depth in her works; saturation and line in the backgrounds are lighter and less detailed, so that the canvases visually fade out, adding to their misty otherworldliness.
Joy Out of Fire exists very much visually in tandem with the Schomburg’s library; the circular gallery’s glass windows open onto bookshelves and reading tables below. The exhibit’s connection to the library’s archives is further highlighted by the presentation of photographs and textual reproductions (letters, memos, etc.) on the walls opposite Báez’s paintings.
Organized by Hallie Ringle, Assistant Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, the exhibition is a collaboration between the Schomburg and the Studio Museum’s InHarlem initiative, which continues programming through neighborhood partnerships while the museum’s new building is constructed. “This was a real collaboration across divisions—museum, library and librarians, archivists, and artist,” Tammi Lawson, Curator, Art & Artifacts Division at the Schomburg, told Hyperallergic. “We were asked to assist with identifying women within our respective collections who have contributed to society, but who are underrepresented or whose stories are not usually told.”
Báez’s joyful worlds create space for viewers to recognize and celebrate the immense contributions, across all fields, of women of color. Their histories dynamically come to life in Joy Out of Fire.