An Artist Finds Inspiration in Women of Color Throughout History
An Artist Finds Inspiration in Women of Color Throughout History
Firelei Báez’s latest body of work is motivated by the Schomburg Center’s archives of such famous figures as Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou.
June 19, 2018
By Tess Thackara
On a recent afternoon at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the artist Firelei Báez was leafing carefully through typed flower orders from the poet Maya Angelou. A pile of letters and notes penned by Angelou was nearby. Every Mother’s Day, Angelou liked to send flowers. An order would go out from her office to the Daily Blossom Florist with a list of women alongside the names of corresponding bouquet arrangements. In May 1994, she sent a spring-inspired bloom to Area Conerly, a Teacup Arrangement to Viola Sterling and a Loving Thoughts Bouquet to “Mother Baldwin” — James Baldwin’s mother. At least six other women received flowers from the poet that year, each bundle arriving with a message signed “Joy, Maya Angelou.”
In her latest body of work in New York City, Báez, a 36-year-old Dominican-born New York-based painter, has found her own way to nurture relationships between historical women of color. The result of months of research, Báez’s shrine-like tribute, a Studio Museum commission curated by the institution’s Hallie Ringle and titled “Joy Out of Fire,” brings together African-American and Afro-Caribbean women who are represented in the Schomburg’s extensive archival holdings. Some are familiar names like the writer Zora Neale Hurston, others lesser-known like Ida Van Smith, an influential pilot from the 1960s who introduced underserved children to the aviation and aerospace industries, and Philippa Schuyler, a mixed-race child prodigy profiled by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker in 1940.
Riffing on the organizing structures of archives, Báez has grouped the dozens of women that appear in the paintings into sections color-coded according to the religious pantheon of the Yoruba people in West Africa. Visionary politicians and scholars appear in a wash of blue, representing what the artist calls the “nurturing spirit” of Yemaya, the goddess of the ocean; women of the arts float in yellow, for the goddess Oshun, who is “sensuous, of the world, a physical spirit”; and activists are set against a fiery red, the color of Oya, a warrior spirit. All of the work can be seen at no charge in a gallery on the Schomburg’s ground floor, a cylindrical space with windows overlooking the basement study rooms of the archives. The walls are immersed, floor to ceiling, in paintings that are like richly layered palimpsests of historical figures. They emerge and recede, much like memories, from ambient fields of color.
Among the archival materials that have stuck in Báez’s mind are the Meta Warrick Fuller papers, including a small black diary where this Harlem Renaissance sculptor and poet kept notes from 1938 to 1952. On Jan. 1, 1938, Fuller began by penning a justification for her journal-keeping: “There are those who think that only great people should keep a record of their life,” she wrote, adding, “If this fact governed everyone there would be no records of those who are truly great for such people do not realize their greatness.” Elsewhere in Fuller’s archive — she kept a guest book and frequently wrote letters — Báez found evidence of her close connection to other luminaries of the period. “She was the social glue,” Báez said. “Every creative, every progressive thinker of the time went through her house, went through her studio.” Fuller appears at the bottom of one of the yellow paintings, near the doyenne of African-American sculpture Augusta Savage and the contemporary fiber artist Xenobia Bailey; circular mandala forms resembling Bailey’s crocheted artworks radiate out from the three women.
Báez is interested in visual language — the different ways that the hand and body can leave something behind, textures that communicate a less accessible but still obvious element of ourselves. In the writing of Angela Davis, she finds the precise, even shape of her letters an expression of the civil rights activist’s deeply held egalitarian principles. “I know what you are going through right now,” Davis wrote to a fellow prisoner named Ericha in 1971, “but I also know that you don’t have to be told to be strong — you’re the epitome of strength. Still I want you to know that I’m with you all the way and personally, I’m going to do everything in my power to free you.” Her script is so clear and uniformly spaced that it almost looks rehearsed, except for the sincerity of the message.
“I’ve always thought of an activist as having unbridled passion,” said Báez, “but Davis has such self-control, right down to her writing — there was no element that was higher or lower. She believes in equality throughout.”
In Maya Angelou’s cursive — seen in intimate written exchanges with Oprah Winfrey, Baldwin and the singer Roberta Flack — Báez discovered both a flamboyant, looping quality and a certain economy of line, expressed in the decisive, abrupt crossing of her “t”s. At the Schomburg, such gestural traces have become the fabric of Báez’s compositions, with the artist largely replacing the patterned surfaces she deployed in past works with painted script to emulate the penmanship of Angelou and Davis.
There is a history of artists of color painting one another into the canon — Jack Whitten with his “Black Monoliths,” which are monuments to famous African-Americans, and the lesser-known Dindga McCannon, who preserved a historical place for black women by painting and sewing their portraits. There is also a history of female artists carving out a seat at the table for other women through fictional and performative dinner parties: Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” and Elia Alba’s ongoing “The Supper Club” are two prominent examples. It’s a tradition that Báez had in mind while formulating the concept for her installation. “Judy Chicago doing ‘The Dinner Party’ is incredible, but it’s specific to her filter,” Báez said, referring to the work’s overwhelming representation of white women. “The more voices you can add to the conversation, the more nuanced it becomes.”
The images of numerous pioneers come into definition in Báez’s paintings, their voices and legacies brought to the fore. But many women in the Schomburg’s collection are buried in the archives of their male relatives, like the writer Maritcha Remond Lyons, whose unpublished memoir resides in the papers of her uncle Harry A. Williamson, a black Freemason. It’s a reminder that the memory of these women, indeed the life of the archive, relies on the kind of attention that Báez has brought to it through her tribute, that history needs constantly to be cared for, revisited and refined. Now Báez’s own voice and hand will join the historical record. Archivists at the Schomburg are collecting materials relating to her project that will be filed away in the Art and Artifacts Division. It is, as Báez described her paintings, like “all the cosmos coming together.”
“Firelei Báez: Joy Out of Fire” is on view through Nov. 24 at the Latimer/Edison Gallery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, studiomuseum.org.