ARC magazine recently posted an excellent interview of Firelei Báez by Tashima Thomas. The interview, which is preceded by a detailed biography of the Haitian-Dominican artist (see excerpt below), was published in the catalogue for the exhibition “Disillusions: Gendered Visions of the Caribbean and its Diasporas,” curated by Tatiana Flores [see previous post Art Exhibition: “Disillusions, Gendered Visions of the Caribbean”].
Firelei Báez received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cooper Union and her Master of Fine Arts from Hunter College. She has been an artist-in-residence at The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program. Her work has received many distinguished awards, including The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Award in Painting, the Bronx Recognizes Its Own Award (BRIO), and The Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Award. Báez was raised in Dajabón, Dominican Republic, near the northeastern border with Haiti. Though the Dominican Republic has a historically contentious relationship with Haiti, Báez acknowledges the permeability of shared experiences between these two spaces. Her work blurs boundaries of shape and form, color and context, mythology and memory. [. . .]
Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Tashima Thomas: I find mythology very important and one of the reasons is because it gives us a framework for understanding our environment. Mythology reveals the mysteries of where we are and why we are—as you stated, “anchoring” us and also serving as a lens through which we are able to understand ourselves, our motivations, destinations, and others. [. . .] Let’s go back to the mythologized figures, where we have beings that are difficult to decode, both because of the details of their physical framework and their borders. Where does one part of the anatomy start or stop?
Firelei Báez: My formative years were spent in the mountains between Haiti and the Dominican Republic in a place called Dajabón, so from an early age, I’ve been aware of borders. I’ve also been thinking about the female body as being this permeable thing and, especially, how the Caribbean body is often viewed or understood as being so fecund that, unless it’s been exhausted, it’s just going to replenish itself immediately. This thing that is at the point of rotting, that you have to prune so that it doesn’t grow wild on you. I think this is in relation to agriculture in the Caribbean. There’s been this excessive use of pesticides on the crops there. Women of African descent have the highest amount of ovarian cysts and ovarian tumors, creating these abnormal growths within the body. I know so many young women of African descent who have had to have surgery to remove ovarian cysts and tumors. The female body is affected by the pumping in of all of these pesticides, which distort and disease the body creating these abnormal growths. The making of mythologies is, in a way, also a process of relearning and re-contextualizing history.
TT: I’m interested in the appearance of the tropically lush landscape/bodyscape. Could you talk about this some more?
FB: They are mostly reactions to historical texts on the Caribbean landscape which describe it, both in negative and positive terms, as particularly female; from Columbus’ first descriptions of the New World, to Antonio S. Pedreira and Tomás Blanco in Puerto Rico, Édouard Glissant in Martinique, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott in the Anglophone Caribbean, José Lezama Lima and Antonio Benítez-Rojo in Cuba among many others. Their words, whether full of fond disdain or frustration constantly brought up the image of an overly fecund, languid and passive female landscape that needed to be controlled. I entered this Caribbean discourse with a contemporary understanding that it’s not just the landscape; it affects real bodies in real time. The female body is posited as a reflection of culturally conceptualized notions of place. In an urban environment, one finds a type of nostalgia for a remembered landscape. Growing up on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, despite their tensions, the landscape still nurtured me. I was able to play freely within it. Once in an urban environment I almost had this eerie feeling of kinship between myself and a domesticated house plant. You have this domestication of the landscape/bodyscape in contained spaces in the city. The creation of my self seemed malleable while growing up in the Dominican Republic/Haiti, with their folklore and culture of endless slippery racial categorizations. In contrast the culture of the United States limited me to a single status—that of Afro Latina. In response, I tried to disrupt current systems of social categorization through the creation of characters that refused definition. In the Carib’s Jhator Series I continue to formally decategorize the body through color and pattern. [. . .]
Image of Firelei Báez’s “For the Memory of Having Been a Listener” (from the series A Carib’s Jhator, 2011) featured in Holly Bynoe’s post (link above)