Studio Visit: Firelei Báez — Isabel Custodio

MoMA, 11.15.2018

On November 17, Firelei Báez will unveil her work For Améthyste and Athénaire (Exiled Muses Beyond Jean Luc Nancy’s Canon), Anaconasas part of The Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Window series. In her art, Báez reclaims the stories of marginalized Afro-Latina and Afro-Caribbean women in order to highlight questions of identity, migration, and ambiguity. This painting depicts Améthyste and Athénaire Christophe, daughters of the first king and queen of Haiti, who were forced into exile in Pisa, Italy, following the death of their father in 1820 and the unification of the Kingdom of Haiti and Republic of Haiti.

No known paintings or photographs of the sisters exist. Báez’s portraits serve as the only visual representation of the sisters and a belated monument to their important role in the story of the Haitian Revolution.

We visited her studio in the Bronx to discuss her latest work for the Modern Window and to explore the motivation behind Améthyste and Athénaire. This interview is edited for flow and clarity.

There are no photographs of the daughters. How did you go about visualizing them?

That’s the thing. There are no portraits. So how do you make someone present when history has made such an effort to erase them? This composition was to try to imagine more the psychology of her, more her presence. It would be, I think, facetious of me to put a stand-in for her. I want there to be room for the viewer to recreate her in the present along with me. That’s why the only concept about her is that her gaze is direct into the viewer, so you connect.

Those eyes are extraordinary. What do you want them to convey?

Self-possession or full engagement with the viewer. You enter a lot of paintings through psychology. It’s something you interact with in your mind rather than thinking of it as an object, as something that you’re physically engaged with or indebted to. That’s why the confrontational gaze. For me, it’s a symbolic map.

Take me through that. What are these symbols?

Symbols of resistance and self-definition. These headdresses were worn when the French were fighting Haiti. They gave the Louisiana Territory to Spain, and one of the first laws that the Spanish mayor put in place was to outlaw free black women’s hair by forcing them to wear a tignon, that head scarf. But it wasn’t just that that their physical selves were too licentious, but there was also this idea they were a threat to the mayor. These women had economic access and were able to buy their families freedom and land. They had real social mobility. These were badass women, so they made this object of oppression a symbol of status, a symbol of beauty, self-definition, and self-care. So that’s where you had, even up to the late 1800s, women all throughout the Caribbean wearing this head scarf.

I also etched onto the head scarf all these different symbols of resistance and healing within the black diaspora. For example, they call these figas in Brazil, but there’s a resonance between that and the Black Power fist. My effort is to say that we’ve had moments of healing and resistance and self-definition hundreds of years before that, and that maybe this is in conversation with both.

Can you tell me about the colors?

I’m referencing specifically cochineal red, which was a sumptuary material. You could only be part of a church or like a colonial socialite [to wear it], so that material, which was so indicative of empire and commerce, is the color of this headdress.

The indigo blue is also so formative to the economy of Haiti. Indigo blue, that forms who we think we are as true-blue Americans. Indigo as we know it, that forms those jeans, is mastered by West African processes. There’s so much in it. Even the veves on the wall are shorthand for specific entities within voodoo. Whenever you see the shell work and all the sea references, it’s towards La Sirene, which is that kind of shield-like symbol up top. The two snakes in the bottom? That’s Ayida-Weddo, which is the full range of gender. We’re so versed in Greek and Roman mythology, and it’s embedded into how we think of psychology and everything around it, but equally foundational are these West African symbols or ideologies that influence so much of what we do.

Her body seems to incorporate the sci-fi element that you put in a lot of your work. Can you talk about that a little bit?

I love reading, for example, Octavia Butler. A lot of the methodologies I use in sci-fi are things that you would consider folklore if you went into specific spaces in the Global South. Ways of splicing bodies or ideas of existing as multiples at once are things that are just coded into language and interaction. So it’s more like sci-fi is indebted to them than the other way around. It’s both, growing up in the States and coming from the Dominican Republic and being versed in both and splicing them together.

Tell me about your motivation for this work.

I think part of it is growing up between the Dominican Republic and here, seeing the dissonance between my lived experience and passed-down family histories, and how the Caribbean, the space I came from, is perceived here. It’s always filtered as this place of pleasure and that is void of history.

A lot of my work has been about recontextualizing Caribbean history and making more evident how it’s been formative to a lot of ideas around the world. When you think of things like the Enlightenment and modernist ideas of progress, they’ve been formed by the actions of, not just the bodies and the labor of, the Caribbean. Martinique and Haiti in particular have been extremely formative. I wanted to bring that, and to think of the women who were not in those epic narratives. When you think of King Henry Christophe [the only monarch of Haiti], the same portraitist that painted Napoleon was brought over to the Caribbean to paint him and his son, but his wife and two daughters were not marked in history in the same way.

Why?

I think it was just gender at the time. There’s so many portraits of Josephine, who was also Caribbean and was considered Creole, but circumstances were different. She was named an empress. She was named a queen. So I wanted to make a space for this figure to be present and for the viewer to have access to a real woman in time who had efforts towards progress and what we call now “black joy.”

How did the location of the installation inform how you adjusted it?

I usually like it to be almost like a reliquary, like a space of, like, spiritual connection. But I like that it’s going to be accessible to everyone, whether they pay the entrance to MoMA or not, and that it gives potentially a wider range for these figures to be concretely of this world, so that everyone who’s coming from all over the world can possibly connect.

When people see this in the window, what do you hope that they take away from it?

I hope they become curious, that it’s an entry point into places that they might not necessarily be driven to access in their regular lives, so that they can connect physically. The reason I put these specific symbols on the wall was to make them concrete of the world, almost like a sentence or an invocation for concretizing history and making it a physical connection, so that you’re not just judging, or you’re not preconceiving who these people were, but more that these are things that are of your world, and that they are something to learn to live with, to be lived with.

The Modern Window is a series of site-specific installations by contemporary artists commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art and designed for the exterior window of The Modern Restaurant on 53rd Street. Since 2008, artists have created installations that engage with the architecture of the window.

Organized by Klaus Biesenbach, former Chief Curator at Large, The Museum of Modern Art, and former Director, MoMA PS1, with Heather Reyes, Department Coordinator, Office of the Chief Curator at Large.