In Boston, Art That Rises from the Deep (on Firelei Báez’s “To breathe full and free…”)

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention via Critical.Caribbean.Art.] In this brilliant article, Siddhartha Mitter (The New York Times) reviews Firelei Báez’s new monumental sculpture “To breathe full and free: a declaration, a revisioning, a correction,” on view at the  Institute of Contemporary Art Watershed until September 6, 2021. He writes, “History meets flamboyant fantasy in the work of Firelei Báez, whose installation on the waterfront reasserts the importance of the Caribbean in world history.” Here are excerpts:

The East Boston shipyard on the harbor hosts a mix of maritime ventures, from vessel repair to a robotics start-up for autonomous navigation. Since 2018, art has found a roost here as well, in the Watershed, the exhibition hall that the Institute of Contemporary Art opened in a former copper and sheet-metal factory.

But on a bright spring day, pausing during the installation of her monumental new sculpture opening July 3, the artist Firelei Báez was contemplating the harbor’s earlier history: The U.S. Immigration Station, where those with bad documents or suspected of having a contagious disease were held until the 1950s. The Boston Tea Party, so celebrated in picture-book history. And less acknowledged, two centuries of ships sailing from here, financed by the Boston elite, to move human chattel and goods around the Atlantic and Caribbean.

“It’s such a palimpsest,” Báez said, looking over the water to the downtown skyline. “Thinking of centuries of development that have happened here — what was negotiated for that to happen, what was given and what was taken?”

The terms of history — what is told, what is left out, what survives erasure in culture and psyche — are a core concern for Báez, 40, who was born in the Dominican Republic and lives in New York City. Her language for exploring it is at once serious and exuberant.

In many of her paintings, for instance, she reproduces old maps that chart commerce and development from the perspective of the victors, then paints onto them flamboyant tropical colors and fantastical figures — notably ciguapas, forest creatures in Dominican folklore who roam with ambiguous intent.

Her sculptural installations, too, are rooted in history yet unfold as poetry.

At the Watershed, she is working in both modes. A massive mural brings the visitor into a swelling seascape in which a ciguapa decked in wild foliage seems to walk on the waves. Parts of an 18th-century map of the Atlantic seaboard are visible, with Boston Harbor in an inset.

Past the mural rises the sculptural component: an architecture of tilted walls and archways, as if surging indigo-hued from the seafloor, studded with barnacles. A perforated canopy covers the space, like ocean’s surface, or the night sky. [. . .]

Back on terra firma, Báez offered a kind of glossary. The blue hue, she said, was inspired by adire, the Yoruba technique for indigo textile dyeing. One pattern was drawn from William Morris, the British wallpaper designer, who in turn borrowed from Mughal art. Among smaller motifs were the sun symbol of the Biafra secession, a flower blossom, the black panther, the Afro comb.

She pointed out that symbols traveled and gained new meanings. Indigo, she said, carried multiple associations. “You could literally trade a body for a bolt of cotton dyed in this material,” the artist said. “But before it was of mercantile use and drove industry in the Western world, it was a symbol of status.”

Having both Dominican and Haitian roots, and having spent early childhood in a region close to the border of the two countries, Báez grew up aware of the part that visual culture can play in enforcing social barriers — notably in the colorism that she recalls as being prevalent in the Dominican Republic and stoking anti-Haitian prejudice. [. . .]

[In a monumental sculpture, the artist Firelei Báez reimagines the archaeological ruins of the Sans-Souci Palace in Haiti. The architecture of lurching walls and archways surges from the “seafloor” of the ICA Watershed. Credit: Firelei Báez and James Cohan; Chuck Choi.]

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