How Rising Star Firelei Báez Uses Yoruba Myth and Her Afro-Caribbean Heritage in Her Profound ‘Joy Out of Fire’ Murals
“When I was I was growing up, I’d be the one who’d be drawing the paper dolls for everyone in the neighborhood,” the artist Firelei Báez explains to me over refreshing San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa drinks in her live/work atelier in upper Manhattan. “Like these really gorgeous gowns—Aretha would’ve been proud.”
Báez’s space has the cool colors of the Caribbean flowing sweetly throughout: Sunny yellows, soft pinks, and watery sea greens permeate both the canvases on the walls and the decor of her home. On a hot early August afternoon, in the artist’s multi-room abode on a quiet block in Inwood, we discuss her artistic roots and the many prolific projects she is currently juggling.
Báez was born in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, in 1981, to a Dominican mother and father of Haitian descent. She remembers her upbringing as involving “busy moms who have like 3,000 jobs. I was there with my abuelas and my tias.”
She was raised in Dajabón, a market city close to the Haitian border. “My idea of landscape and sunlight, everything came from growing up there,” she says. Her family moved frequently, with the future artist attending a different school every year in the Dominican Republic and then Miami, where she moved when she was nine.
In her account, Báez was a very shy and introverted child, but a maker and seeker, encouraged by her mother and teachers. Though she would go on to study at Hunter College and Cooper Union, she links her current career success to her early travels as a daughter of the Dominican and Haitian diaspora.
“Creativity was a place that felt safe,” she says. “Everywhere we moved, I would create a space I wanted to be in. I would make these little fantasy rooms out of whatever little room I was given, really changing the spaces and environment I was in, making painting to go in them. Something that gave me a place to anchor… Even if those things were destroyed, like a year later, I knew I had the ability to recreate something nicer or better, because that was like a fountain of creativity within me. What didn’t have to come from outside, I could just create.”
Recently, Báez has been balancing three major projects concurrently: the solo show “To See Beyond” at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, which ended in mid-August; a place in the prestigious tenth edition of the Berlin Biennale, which closed last weekend; and her majestic mural project, Joy Out of Fire, on view in the Latimer/Edison Gallery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture through November.
The CAC Cincinnati show incorporated painting, sculpture, and works on paper, continuing her dialogue on race, black women’s bodies, and Caribbean feminist folklore. That show’s curator, Steven Matijcio, described it as an illustration of her protean talent, offering a showcase of Báez’s “painterly hybridity as spoken through the centuries-old tradition of portraiture.”
As for the Berlin Biennale, where Báez was included (alongside revered Afro-Cuban artist Belkis Ayón), she looked at the “triangulated histories” contained in the name “San-Souci”: the estate of Frederick the Great outside of Berlin, which was called Sanssouci; the castle of Henri Christophe in Milot, Haiti, known as San-Souci Palace; and the Haitian Colonel Jean-Baptiste Sans-Souci.
All these meanings are are related to men. Yet in the piece for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona (2018), Báez brings the significance back to an Afro-Caribbean woman. At the Akademie der Künste, Báez’s crimson and fuchsia portrait of Coidavid—the wife of Haitian revolutionary leader Henri Christophe, who named himself King Henri in 1811—was inset in a sculptural frame and elaborately ornamented wall, alluding to the architecture of the fortress of Sans-Souci Palace in Milot.
“The narrative of the Milot space has traditionally been centered around Henri Christophe, but his main residence was uphill at Fortress Ferrier,” Báez explains. “Sans-Souci was primarily a residence for his wife Marie Louise and daughters. I like to think this place, because of her presence, was more than a site for adversarial watchfulness like the fortress, being instead a place for enacting black joy.”
Rounding out the biennial, Báez got to produce some of her most ambitious work since her Pérez Art Museum Miami show “Bloodlines,” in 2015, including outdoor architectural sculptures and suites of intimate compositions on book pages.
Her New York mural, Joy out of Fire, features a constellation of iconic black women, seen through Báez’s lens, such as artist Faith Ringgold, activist and scholar Angela Davis, poet Maya Angelou, and other black female history-makers. Báez’s pantheon of black female excellence—variously African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latinx—comes together, fittingly, under the haven of its namesake Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a self-proclaimed Afro-Boricua.
These sweeping portraits are presented on stretched canvases that wrap around the hexagonal gallery, imagining the various women in dialogue with one another. Journals, letters, photographs, and other ephemera anchor them in historical context.
Joy Out of Fire is an “inHarlem” collaboration with the Studio Museum in Harlem. Báez recounts that the Schomburg and Studio Museum—“both seminal spaces”—kept the premise simple. In essence, she was told, “‘Here is your voice. Let’s nurture that. You can do anything as long as it reflects the place where you are working on.’” The show opened in May, after numerous months of profound research that started in the late fall of 2017.
Báez arrived at the subject matter of the Schomburg mural via a process. “I originally wanted to do something on [inventor and entrepreneur] Madam C.J. Walker, but her archive is not in any of the New York libraries—it’s in the South,” she explains. “The second option for me was to magnify the global context of the Caribbean. But what they [the Schomburg] has of that is very male and very military.”
Her next and final idea was to look specifically at the many extraordinary women already within the Schomburg archives. “Editing was the toughest part, because usually I make painting where it’s a singular figure that’s a vessel for many stories,” she explains.
To organize the material, Báez drew on imagery that connects the work clearly to her own Afro-Caribbean roots, looking to the iconography of Yoruba religion, specifically the Pantheon of the Orishas and the deities known as Oya, Oshun, and Yemoja.
“The color theory that immediately came to mind came from the Orishas,” Báez explains. “These female entities within the Pantheon were guides for how to edit down all the information. So all the activists were Oya [the Orisha associated with death and rebirth], in the red painting; she’s this fiery spirit that can destroy or renew, so you’ll find several versions of Angela Davis in that one painting. Then the yellow work is Oshun [the Orisha associated with love and sensuality]. So the yellow paintings are usually where you find the artists; that’s where the dancers, the painters, the creatives manifested. The blue painting is Yemoja, or Yemayá in Spanish [the highest Orisha, a water deity associated with motherhood and healing]. It’s usually judges, archivists, librarians—people who were in a public sphere; people who, through their daily life, activated change and supported the community around them through everyday action. In the blue painting there is also a thread of red, because you have to have this activist spirit.”
I’ve walked through Joy Out of Fire several times, and the power on these canvases is palpable. In a yellow work inspired by Oshun, magnitude and bond (2018), Katherine Dunham and Josephine Baker glide gracefully in the air. In the blue Yemoja-inspired piece, Gwendolyn Brooks and Zora Neale Hurston sit stoically, with reserved gestures.
I ask Báez whether any new icons were unearthed in the process of her research. She mentions one in particular, an Afro-Cuban poet and actress: “Eusebia Cosme was someone who influenced the Harlem Renaissance. She was a Cuban voice actress. She was this Renaissance woman who did everything, but we hardly ever hear of her.”
Hallie Ringle, former assistant curator at the Studio Museum, praises the depth of Báez’s process in Joy Out of Fire. “Firelei did countless hours of research about the women represented in the works before painting and you can see the care for each person that went into the paintings.” The result, Ringle says, is “a kind of complete portrait of each person that both recognizes their physical self and their intellectual contributions to society.”
The themes from all of these works continue to come together in Báez’s upcoming fall show, her first with Chicago gallerist Kavi Gupta, which opens September 15. “We’re very excited for how the show will be contributing to a larger dialogue in her practice that’s also been engaged by her other recent projects, such as her showing at the Berlin Biennale, or her Studio Museum project at the Schomburg Center,” Gupta explained by email. “While each project has been specific, they’re not isolated—each is contributing to her increasingly ambitious exploration of identity, and a complex network of historical circumstances which remain relevant to identity today.”