Based in New York, Dominican-American Firelei Baez is an artist whose work deals with images of migration and identity. Baez makes large-scale sculptures, installations, collages, drawings, and vivid paintings – rendered in acrylics and gouache – to create replicas of architectural ruins and opulent interiors. Her works coalesce to form narratives around ancestry and cultural identity. Visual references from history, folklore, myth, and history are reconfigured in her works to show how the past and its cultural memory shape the people of a particular region.
Born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and to a father of Haitian descent, she grew up on the border between Hispaniola’s Dominican Republic and Haiti. The history of tension between these two small countries comes from their ethnic differences. When she was ten years old, her family moved to Miami. She received her B.F.A. from Cooper Union’s School of Art and an M.F.A. from Hunter College. She also studied at The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Baez investigates issues of identity, which articulate her Caribbean background. Afro-Caribbean women are the focus of her symbol-laden works. She draws upon Dominican folklore, historical records of Atlantic trade routes, the African diaspora, and slave histories to reclaim the past and to reimagine the migration of these women and the communities that they built. Regional myths merge with science fiction and fantasy in works that feature strong female characters whose eyes look directly at the viewer. These female protagonists come from the “ciguapa,” the mythological seductress from Dominican folklore with legs turned backwards and lustrous masses of hair. Baez sees the ciguapa as an independent and self-possessed woman. Her “Ciguapa Antellana” is a glass mosaic public work commissioned for Manhattan’s 163rd Street, Amsterdam Avenue subway.
She often paints directly onto maps, manuals, travelogues, charts, and scientifiic drawings as she layers shapeshifting figures of the female form over them along with portraits and self-portraits. Her installations contain lavish textiles, wall coverings , calligraphic patterns, feathered headdresses, and beaded jewelry.
Her monumental outdoor public sculpture, which featured a large archway inspired by a Haitian palace ruin, was installed on Manhattan’s High Line as part of its year long “En Plein Air” exhibition, which was on view through March 2020.
She was featured in the 10th Berlin Biennale where her work created an environment in which cultures could commune together. There at the Akademie der Kunste, her installations, drawings, painting, and architecture explored intersections between Haitian and German history as she combined Caribbean symbolism and baroque decor.
Placed outside the entrance to the Akademie was her sculpture of a crumbling Rococo palace facade, which combined features of two royal residences: Frederick the Great’s summer estate in Potsdam and Haitian ruler Henri Christophe’s palace, the latter built in imitation of European structures.
Another work of hers at the Biennale was a mural that looked like an interior wall of the Haitian palace, with a portrait of Christophe’s wife, Marie-Louise Coidavid, entitled “for Marie-Louise Coidavid exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona.” This oil on canvas installation has cross-cultural significance. The work merges cosmic symbols of Haiti’s Vodou religion with European baroque decor. Moreover cross-cultural symbolism surrounds the portrait of Marie-Louise, who is wearing a draped red head scarf. The title of the mural combines two legendary queens of the island of Hispaniola: Queen of the Taino, Anacoana (1464-1504) and Queen of Haiti, Marie-Louise Coidavid (1778-1851). Baez is referencing these two heroines of Haiti’s past to undo their absence in historical narratives.
For a major commission at the ICA Boston’s Watershed outpost, she made a site-specific monumental sculpture of the ruins of the Haitian Sans-Souci palace. It was a literal excavation, and the structure had textile patterns and insignias, evoking Boston’s historical role as a trade and immigration center.
Baez was awarded a 2019 Soros Arts Fellowship and has had solo exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Perez Art Museum in Miami, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida, and Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, ICA Watershed. Early next year the James Cohan Gallery in New York City will present her abstract paintings which incorporate reproductions of historical maps.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Kemper Art Museum, Miami’s Perez Art Museum, San Jose Museum of Art, Hamilton College, the Salomon Foundation for Contemporary Art in Annecy, France, and others.