Rendering her subjects in complex layers of pattern and imagery, New York-based artist Firelei Báez casts cultural and regional histories into an imaginative realm, where visual references drawn from the past are reconfigured 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 lavish textiles and wallcoverings with colonial-era floral motifs, to calligraphic patterns, hair textures, feathered headdresses and beaded jewelry. 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 varied 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 a liminal 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. In 2019 her work will be the subject of solo exhibitions at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the Mennello Museum of Art, Orlando, FL. Other forthcoming projects include the Modern Window at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, as well as a group exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, CA. The artist recently participated in the 2018 Berlin Biennale, and was also featured in biennials Prospect.3: Notes for Now (2014), Bronx Calling: The Second AIM Biennial (2013), and El Museo’s Bienal: The (S) Files (2011). Her significant 2015 solo exhibition Bloodlines was organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami, FL and travelled to the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA.
Other recent solo exhibitions of Báez’s work have been presented by The Studio Museum, Harlem, NY; Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati, OH; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO; DePaul Art Museum, Chicago, IL; Taller Puertorriqueno, Philadelphia, PA; and Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, UT. Báez is the recipient of many awards: most recently, the College Art Association Artist Award for Distinguished Body of Work (2018), the Future Generation Art Prize (2017), and the Chiaro Award (2016). Her work belongs to the permanent collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; Pérez Art Museum Miami, FL; The Cleveland Clinic Fine Art Collection, Cleveland, OH; Phillip and Tracey Riese Foundation, New York, NY; San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA; Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY; Sindika Dokolo Foundation Collection, Luanda, Angola; Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA; The Jean-Marc Salomon Foundation for Contemporary Art, Annecy, France; BNY Mellon Art Collection, Pittsburgh, PA, and Tiroche DeLeon Collection, Jaffa, Israel.