New York-based artist Firelei Báez casts diasporic histories into an imaginative realm, re-working visual references drawn from the past to explore new possibilities for the future. In exuberantly colorful works on paper and canvas, large-scale sculptures, and immersive installations, Báez combines representational cues that span from hair textures to textile patterns, plantlife, folkloric and literary references, and wide-ranging emblems of healing and resistance. Often featuring strong female protagonists, Baez’s portraits incorporate the visual languages of regionally-specific mythology and ritual alongside those of science fiction and fantasy, to envision identities as unfixed, and inherited stories as perpetually-evolving. These empowered figures’ eyes most often engage directly with the viewer, asserting individuality and agency within their states of flux.
Born in Santiago de los Caballeros to a Dominican mother and a father of Haitian descent, Firelei Báez’s concerns with the politics of place and heritage can be traced back to her own upbringing on the border between Hispaniola’s two neighboring countries, whose longstanding history of tension is predicated in large part by ethnic difference. Báez’s work ties together subject matter mined from a wide breadth of diasporic narratives.
In addition to self-portraiture, past series have examined ciguapas, elusive and cunning female creatures from Dominican folklore; tignons, head-coverings women of color were legally required to wear in 18th century New Orleans; and the iconography of the Black Panther Movement. Báez often paints directly onto historical material, such as found maps, manuals, and travelogues, layering figures over them. By rendering spectacular bodies that exist on opposite sides of intersecting boundaries—between human and landscape, for example, or those reinforcing racial and class stratification—Báez carries portraiture into an in-between space, where subjectivity is rooted in cultural and colonial narratives as much as it can likewise become untethered by them.
Firelei Báez (b. 1981, Dominican Republic) received an M.F.A. from Hunter College, a B.F.A. from the Cooper Union’s School of Art, and studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Báez was selected to participate in the 59th Venice Biennale which will take place from April 23 to November 27, 2022.