An Interview with Artist Firelei Báez

Text by Heike Dempster

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Where are you from and where are you based?

I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised right on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I went to school in Miami and then moved to New York for College and stayed there. I feel like I am in constant migration so I call home wherever I am at the moment and that involves a lot of residencies in other states. So for three months I am from California or Massachusetts or wherever. This idea of home has been mobile.

What are some of the main subjects you explore in your art?

My work usually is an exploration of different histories. Usually histories that have not been acknowledged by the larger canon, but that have been super influential to the making of people like me or to the larger context, but not really acknowledged. I was born in the Dominican Republic to both, Haitian and Dominican parents. And if anybody knows a little bit of their history, they know how contentious that union can be. As an island it’s had a really fraught history. I was really interested in exploring the histories of how influential just Haiti alone has been to world economies, world revolutions, beyond what we think of in the New World.

Please elaborate on the intricate symbolic details that are an identifying marker of your practice. What are some of the symbols you use and why?

I wanted to create different emblems that reflected the different rebellions and moments of resistance that happened, starting from the Caribbean, that then influenced global contacts. . In terms of symbols, I use the black power fist, the black panther, which was a logo for the Black Panther Movement, then there is the hair pick, which was a symbol for the reclaiming of black beauty. The afro pick usually has the black power fist in it. I also use the cabache from Latin America, I was interested in how something that came out of a dark period in history could influence then moments of resistance and self-definition and agency in the United States.

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Can you explain the meaning of the cabache further?

The cabache is a good luck charm or an evil eye protecting charm that a lot of Caribbean and Brazilian babies have when they are newborns. They are either hung on their wrist or their neck. It has been used for hundreds of years. Some people say it has a link to slavery in Cuba where they would guild male slaves as part of that whole breeding system. If you wanted to be intimate with someone outside of that breeding system as a way of reclaiming your humanity, it was code for “hey I want to be with you.” That resistance, that subversion, was claimed as something for protection. I think that is so beautiful. It is nuanced and can be both, affirming and it can take away a lot of the power of the gesture to then have that capture part of the body.

Your work often has a distinct female voice. Is this voice speaking from your personal experiences and/or from multiple experiences based on research?

I feel like it is a mix of both because I grew up with a very strong matriarchal family of women working together and having very independent lives. I feel like inevitably that seeps in but that is never the intention going into it. It is not like I am saying I want to have an ode to all the strong women in my family. But it is something I grew up with. It is about familiarity with the female body but it is my own experience. We have a long history of the female body in painting but never from that perspective of the woman. So it is about reversing that. That has been something important. Women’s work has always been important in general. That’s why highlighting things that are usually relegated to the feminine space but in contrast with what the female body is usually not allowed to do. Things like my book pages have women doing all kinds of things that would not necessarily fall within mainstream ideas of femininity, such as daggering and wildings. There are these mass fights that happen with women around the world. They are so disruptive. They are usually being encouraged by someone close to them, like a mom. It is intense. I feel like it is that rebellion against what the media wants you to do but it is also a reaction and encouragement of things like reality television. Once you have that camera it is not enough to be pretty. You have to act out somehow. It is both. It is a strange dissonance.

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Your art participates in a rewriting of history by adding another voice. What aspects are you particularly concerned with?

Or a revealing. It is usually about moments of resistance and the dialogue between the Caribbean and America, North and South America. A lot of times especially the Caribbean is being contextualized as being without history. It’s a space for vacationing, for pleasure but it is never given a space for what it has actually been. It has influenced global movements, economies, and agency for other places. They have basically exploited the region but it has created its own space for its own needs, revealing its own identity and agency, and that’s particular to the region that has then influenced global context.

Strong and powerful women are central to your canvases but also your work overall. Can you tell us about the Dominican mythologies of the ciguapas and how you incorporate it into your art?

Ciguapas are specific to the Dominican Republic but it may go into parts of Haiti. There is nothing fixed about her other than that her legs are backwards, which makes her untraceable so she gets to get away. If you follow her footsteps you are going in the wrong direction. She has this slippery space within culture where she can wreck havoc, create and undo, at her own will. Usually tricksters are male figures and I was interested in how she is a female figure and representative of the landscape. She comes out of landscape but then in Spanish language in particular and usually the romance languages, the feminine is considered passive – the moon, the chair, the mountain – it’s something that has to be activated. An ideal female is someone who waits to be activated. I remember going to school. There was a sign, a city sign, from a poem by one of the revolutionaries that said, in translation: the palms are brides in waiting. The island itself, the landscape, is this waiting bride, waiting to be activated by the colonizer or this figure. So this treatment of land and treatment of the feminine is usually around the same. I kept thinking about this thing of nature that essentially breaks all the rules and can do as she wishes, and then about this idea in language that your actions are predetermined by someone else. So then I was thinking of creating this ciguapa as a point of projection where she can become either this wild creature that can attack you, or this passive houseplant that’s sitting in a corner gathering dust. I had her body covered in hair. One of the stories is that the ciguapa has this long, lustrous mane of hair and her backward legs, but thinking of hair as this visceral thing, that’s considered unfeminine – a feminine body is supposed to have a manicured, unhaired body – but hers is just covered in this lustrous fur that’s not necessarily considered attractive. From my experience, when people think of the Caribbean, they think of this incredibly lush space, this paradise space that is ready for whatever your wishes demand. But it’s a geography with specific connotations outside of whatever you are bringing into it, so I always want to hint that, that these are figures coming out of these geographies that are lush and that are not necessarily as tidy as might be expected. They are intrinsically feminine but they may not be your ideal of feminine.

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You use textiles and patterns, the body as well as adornments and hair or hairstyles to examine history as well as the contemporary world. What is the meaning of dress, body and hair as cultural and social signifier in relation to your work?

There is such a long history of emptying cultural objects and turning them into decorative things once that meaning has been taken away. A lot of times when I use those objects I mean them in a very specific way with their original intent. They are meant to be roadmaps of information for the viewer to then seek further information about the figure being depicted. It’s never an individual portrait. It is more, again, like a palimpsest of information about who this person is, where they came from, and what their ideas of self for the future are. Like a little time capsule hopefully. The power of ornamentation goes beyond the decorative and into the natural relic.

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What are some of the fabrics and materials you incorporate?

A lot of times palampurs were north Indian royal textiles. They were emblems of power for that court. They were then taken by the British crown and used for smoking jackets or for a lady’s gown – really banal things. Tthey were emblems of power in themselves and of the vestige of empire and then were further democratized by people like William Morris, who made like the printed wallpaper for every middle class household to have. That’s further diluted into something like Crate & Barrel making duvet covers and shams. Something that had so much power in itself gets taken away and further separated from its original meaning. That’s how it becomes decorative. Some of the ways that I use it, I started to reclaim that original meaning and to give context. They are in the style of let’s say a palampur using indigo, which, in itself, had such a strong significance in the slave trade. A bolt of indigo cotton was used to trade a body, so a person would be worth a bolt of cotton, which is insane, but the process of making indigo was particular to West Africa. It had been perfected. Something that had been an emblem of culture and progress and specific to the region was used then to further exploit that and take it away. So, it’s never about who is a victor and who is a loser but about the struggle, about this constant flux of history, of agency seeking.

Can you tell us more about the history of the plaseés? And your research on New Orleans?

I was looking at the women in New Orleans, who were called plaseés. They were basically unofficial wives or mistresses. And they were usually women of color who had incredible power because they were, through their freedom and access, able to buy their families, buy land, and basically pass on their agency to their descendants and their family members. There are a lot of great art historians doing intensive research on this who could give you very detailed, factual information on this. For me, I was coming in in terms of the subversive beauty of that gesture of the plaseés. Going into it, I found that the first law of one of the Spanish mayors when it was a Spanish colony in Louisiana, was to outlaw these women’s hair and to take away their social position by making them wear a headscarf which tied them to the servant class. These were free women of color in Louisiana who were able through their position to shake the status quo. There were very few European women and they were essentially like second wives for a lot of planters, the wealthier planters. They really wanted to make class distinctions and thinking about something like the casta paintings in Spain, the Spanish Church had always been very much into very clearly defining all the different strata of cast within society. Endorsing the rape of indigenous cultures in order to make them more Spanish, more white, more European. They had been coming in with those ideals already from colonies in Latin America and tried to establish those rules in Louisiana. But what they did, which I found to be incredibly beautiful and powerful, is that these women then reacted by making the headdresses more and more elaborate to the point of them becoming the fashion in Europe and overturning the law in Louisiana, making it basically obsolete because it was not something that could be suppressed.

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Many of your works feature powerful that hold the viewer’s gaze.

The eyes are the minimal requirement you need to refer to a human and for you to feel like you are engaged with another body. It is a matter of giving that subject, that is in the image, a way of to engage. It is not for the viewer to be consumed. There is that last barrier, the last resistance. There might be an interiority rather than just surface. A lot of times when we confront objects you do not think maybe about the person making it. The hand, the time, the material. When we confront figures a lot of times we think who they might have been and that can come out of the two dimensionality of images and how we always think of them as an illusion in space like maybe there is an implied narrative. What is important to me, too, is the material and seeing how the viewer reacts. It is also about reacting to color and paper and the environment. All the things we spoke off just happen after you step back and really try to break down all the things that influence you and have seeped in while you were making work. People ask, why do you use such western imagery to depict things that have potentially all these other histories? It is this negotiation. We are in a region that is both. There is this constant negotiation of who we are as a region and we are composite of all these different spaces.

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