Art Basel, December 29, 2022


In her intricate pieces, the Dominican Republic-born, Bronx-based painter taps into mythology, biology, and tradition


The Caribbean is never far in Miami. You feel it as you huddle under an awning and wait for a downpour to pass. It is that flavor in your cocktail not listed in the ingredients. Miami cherishes its elaborate construction projects, but like a coconut on the highway, its Caribbean spirits always manage to make their presence known. Such spirits have lately been a focus for Bronx-based painter Firelei Báez, who grew up in Miami, and whose work appears in ‘Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s–Today’, which is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Undulant and vegetal, her island nymphs squat on maps, and stare at the viewer from eyes set into faces without features, which seem to ask, ‘Why, exactly, do you want to see more?’ 


 Báez is Haitian-Dominican and her work explores the way the Caribbean manages to mingle the biological, sociological, and mythological. The painting of Báez’s that graces the two-story atrium of the MCA Chicago, Drexciya (2020) is a perfect introduction to her work. The title nods to the Detroit techno band of the same name, and the related lore of an Afrofuturist version of Atlantis populated by the descendants of pregnant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships when they entered labor. She has said that there is something in this of Édouard Glissant’s theory of the ocean as ‘a repository of physical memory’. But you need to know none of this to enjoy the painting. It is possible to stand before it and just admire the brushwork, drinking in the life-affirming colors of its otherworldly psychedelia.
Firelei Báez, the soft afternoon air as you hold us all in a single death (To breathe full and Free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction), 2021. Installation view, Artes Mundi 9, National Museum Cardiff, Wales, 2021. Photo by Stuart Whipps.
For the 2018 Berlin Biennale she recreated the crumbling arches of Sans-Souci, a castle in Milot, Haiti, which looks familiar to anyone who’s ever visited Old Havana but feels quite out of place in tidy Berlin. Older projects have included Can I Pass? Introducing the Brown Paper Bag to the Fan Test for the Month of June (2011), which included in her show at Pérez Art Museum Miami and is based on a real 19th century test to determine whiteness. These small paintings reflect Báez’s skin tone, and there is something in these works about her moving to Miami at age 10. ‘There’s a fluidity of color, of race, in the Caribbean,’ she told the Miami New Times. ‘In America, you’re [just B]lack.’

Firelei Báez, Untitled (Terra Nova), 2020. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle.


As a New Yorker, my favorite piece of hers is Ciguapa Antellana, me llamo sueño de la madrugada (who more sci-fi than us) (2018) at the subway station in the traditionally Dominican Washington Heights. Ciguapas are a kind of Dominican mythical creatures, beautiful and dangerous. Yet, on the walls of the station, Antellana explodes into flowers collapsing the growth from the solid trunk of a curvy thigh. Has anyone created a better image of what it’s like to come home from work? 


‘In most power relationships, you have the victim trying to solve the situation and I don’t want to create narratives of victimhood,’ Báez recently told Art21. ‘I want to flip it.’

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