New York-based artist Firelei Báez casts diasporic histories into an imaginative realm, re-working visual references drawn from the past 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 hair textures to textile patterns, plantlife, folkloric and literary references, and wide-ranging emblems of healing and resistance. 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 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 an in-between 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 2021, Báez was included in the Artes Mundi 9 exhibition, and is currently the subject of a solo presentation at the ICA Watershed, Boston, MA. In 2019, the artist's work was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Mennello Museum of Art, Orlando, FL, the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the Modern Window at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her monumental outdoor sculpture, 19.604692°N 72.218596°W, was included in En Plein Air, the 2019 High Line Art exhibition. Báez was featured in the 2018 Berlin Biennale, Prospect.3: Notes for Now (2014), Bronx Calling: The Second AIM Biennial (2013), and El Museo’s Bienal: The (S) Files (2011). Her major 2015 solo exhibition Bloodlines was organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami and travelled to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
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 Artes Mundi Prize (2021); the Phillip Guston Rome Prize (2021); the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (2020), the Soros Arts Fellowship (2019), the United States Artists Fellowship (2019), the College Art Association Artist Award for Distinguished Body of Work (2018), the Future Generation Art Prize (2017), the Chiaro Award (2016), and Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors (2011). Her work belongs to the permanent collections of institutions including The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park, FL; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; BNY Mellon Art Collection, Pittsburgh, PA; The Cleveland Clinic Fine Art Collection, Cleveland, OH; Dallas Museum of Art, TX; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.; Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, MA;The Isabela and Agustín Coppel Collection, Mexico City, Mexico; Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; Mandeville Gallery, Union College, Schenectady, NY; The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Canada; Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; New Orleans Museum of Art, LA; Orlando Museum of Art, FL; Pérez Art Museum Miami, FL; Pizzuti Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, OH; Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; San Jose Museum of Art, CA; Sindika Dokolo Foundation Collection, Luanda, Angola; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA; and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY.