Firelei Baez Will Be the ICA/Boston 2021 Watershed Artist

A report by John Lynds for The East Boston Times.

The ICA Watershed, opened in the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina in the summer 2018.  After two successful seasons, the Watershed was forced to close for the 2020 season and push back the scheduled commission by acclaimed artist Firelei Báez. 

Throughout the pandemic the Watershed was repurposed as an important food distribution site to address a direct need within the Eastie, which has experienced one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in Boston. In partnership with community organizations in the neighborhood and the museum’s caterer, The Catered Affair, more than 2,000 boxes of much-needed fresh produce and dairy products were delivered to Eastie families throughout the spring and summer last year, and this will continue through spring 2021.

However, with summer coming, and more and more residents being vaccinated, ICA Director Jill Medvedow is confident Baez’s art will finally be on full display for the 2021 season. 

“With the cooperation of Firelei Báez, our East Boston partners, ICA staff and generous donors, we re-directed the resources of the ICA and the Watershed in particular to address a direct need within the community (in 2020),” said Medvedow. “Art projects were included in each box of food to provide families with new and creative activities to do at home during that challenging time.”

Medvedow said Baez’s work that will be on display this summer at the Watershed is the artist’s largest sculptural installation to date. Baez’s work reimagines ancient ruins as though the sea had receded from the Watershed floor to reveal the archeology of human history in the Caribbean.

“The Watershed’s location—in a working shipyard and as a trade site and point of entry and home for immigrants over decades—provides a pivotal point of reference for the work,” said Medvedow. “Her installation will invite visitors to walk through passageways, travel through time, and experience the many streams of influence and interconnectedness that the artist conjures,” Báez was born in 1981 in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, to a Dominican mother and a father of Haitian descent. Her upbringing between Hispaniola’s two countries, which have a longstanding history of tension predicated on ethnic differences, informs her concerns with the politics of place and heritage. She currently lives and works in New York City.

“Báez’s visual references draw from a wide variety of sources in the past, and are reconfigured to explore new possibilities in the present,” said Eva Respini who is organizing the installation. “Her site-specific installation at the Watershed combines her interests in various diasporic narratives—African, European, Caribbean—to cast cultural and regional histories into an imaginative realm,” 

According to Respini, Báez’s architectural sculpture is adapted from the Sans-Souci Palace in Milot, Haiti, built between 1810 and 1813 for the revolutionary leader and first King of Haiti, Henri Christophe I. The Haitian Revolution, led by self-liberated enslaved people against the French colonial government, was an early precursor to the abolition movements of the United States. Once a space of militant splendor, since an 1842 earthquake, the castle has been an archeological ruin.

At the Watershed, Báez reimagines these ruins emerging from Boston Harbor’s sea floor. She embeds Sans-Souci within the geological layers of Boston, where histories of revolution and independence are integral, including often overlooked related narratives from non-European locations.

“Báez’s intricately painted architectural surfaces include symbols of healing and resistance as well as sea growths native to Caribbean waters,” said Medvedow. “The patterning of the sculpture’s surface is drawn largely from West African indigo printing appropriated from enslaved people in the 17th-century American South. American indigo was a driving force in the early national economy, and one of the primary trade goods shipped from colonial-era Boston.”  The sculpture will be on view later this spring and is organized by Respini, Barbara Curator Lee Chief and Curatorial Project Manager Cara Kuball.

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