Rewriting Maps and Resisting History: The Art of Firelei Báez at ICA Boston

The artist's first U.S. survey exhibition explores the legacies of colonial rule across the Americas and the African diaspora in the Caribbean and beyond.

Installatio views of Fireli Baez 's immersive environmment made oof bk
Firelei Báez, A Drexcyen chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways), 2019. Two paintings, hand-painted wooden frame, perforated tarp, printed mesh, handmade paper over found objects, plants and books, 373 1/4 × 447 1/8 × 157 1/8 inches (948.1 × 1135.7 × 399.1 cm). Photo by Mel Taing. Courtesy of the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection, San Francisco.

Mixing parallel stories and codes of representation, Firelei Báez has been creating her alternative system to map the history of civilization by creatively appropriating and then hacking colonial historical documents. An eponymous show at Boston’s ICA featuring forty of the artist’s most important works invites us to journey into alternative tracks of humanity to understand gaps in the historical records beyond the dominant narratives.

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Moving between temporalities and spaces, the artist’s densely hybrid visual universes allow different stories to coexist and collide in the service of writing a multilaterally multicultural version of history yet to be explored. Having studied anthropology, Báez is very interested in the continuous threads of human migrations, which resulted in cultural exchange, hybridization or dispersion. Drawing on disciplines of anthropology, as well as geography, folklore, fantasy, science fiction and social history, she creates her mythology with deep symbologies and manipulated timeless iconographies.

Visitors to “Firelei Baez” are first seduced by an encounter with a series of anthropomorphic female figures, never fully identifiable in the way they blend with natural elements through the artist’s process of pouring paint on Yupo paper, transmuting figures into fluid and unfixed forms. In this way, the figures exist between human, animal and mythical beings, turning into revealing symbols of encounters of creatures, stories and spiritualities within the Atlantic Basin. These silhouettes eventually evolved into the more explicit political series “Can I Pass? Introducing the Paper Bag to the Fan Test for the Month of July” a series of thirty-one self-portraits titled after a racist and widespread 20th-century practice that employed a brown paper bag as a skin-tone color test to admit or deny people entry into social functions.

Installation views with some of the works bby Firelei Baez
“Firelei Báez” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Photo by Mel Taing 2024

Applying this same strategy of disguise and camouflage, Baez also addresses other colonial impositions aiming at dematerializing and historicizing bodies. An example is a work from her “Tignon” series: here, the artist portrays a female figure fully wrapped inside an elegantly decorated white and blue tignon to refer to the response of the Creole women who wore tignons made from luxurious fabrics ornamented with jewels, ribbons and feathers to resist the racist and classist regulations of the so-called tignon law of 1786, enacted by the Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró during the Spanish colonial rule of New Orleans (1763-1803), requiring Creole women of African descent to cover their hair with knotted headscarves.

Also in the first room, Man Without a Country (aka anthropophagic wading in the Artibonite River), 2014-15, is a fascinating archipelago of 225 deaccessioned book pages hanging as islands on the wall, standing as a rumination on the history of Hispaniola—the Caribbean island divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti—in a global context. The artist manipulates these living pages, many dog-eared and gently worn,  depicting fantastic figures and other symbolic elements, hacking the original narrative of the pages to create the occasion of cultural and historical crashes to offer new ways of reading history. The work’s title references the ongoing plight of many Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic, where citizenship and its rights are not guaranteed.

Maps by FireleiBáez
Firelei Báez, Man Without a Country (aka anthropophagist wading in the Artibonite River), 2014–15. Gouache, ink, and chine-collé on 225 deaccessioned book pages, 106 1/4 × 252 inches (270 × 640 cm). Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York. Photo by Oriol Tarridas. © Firelei Báez

This practice of repurposing and reactivating maps and other original colonial materials, such as charts and architectural plans, is at the heart of Firelei Báez’s art and her colorful and complexly symbolically multilayered canvases. With her painted interventions, the artist adds informational layers that traditional maps omitted,  complicating the narrative of Euro-American exceptionalism toward the Global South. “My works are propositions, meant to create alternate pasts and potential futures, questioning history and culture in order to provide a space for reassessing the present,” explained the artist in a statement.

For instance, in one of the most ambitious maps on view, which entered the Guggenheim’s Collection, Untitled (United States Marine Hospital), 2019, Báez overlays painterly gestures onto a twentieth-century Works Progress Administration-commissioned architectural diagram of the United States Marine Hospital in New Orleans, which later turned into the psychiatric unit and was recently one of the historic sites threatened or damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005: questioning the stratification of stories and meanings that can be attributed to a historical civil site, the complex multilayering of painterly interventions impose some profound questions on the very notion of how histories are recorded.

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Eventually, all of Baez’s art was generated from this endless attempt to resist and oppose singular narratives in favor of those multiple readings, which, as she says, can “guide us into multiple histories.”

One of the most potent examples is another of her masterpieces in the show Untitled (Terra Nova), 2020, now in the Montreal Museum of Art collection. Here, she brings in the figure of a ciguapa, a mythic femme creature from Dominican folklore historically known as a seductress who guided travelers (primarily men) into the woods and to their death. The artist introduces her as a powerful, self-possessed femme figure, crouching at the base of Terra Nova, an engraved atlas map from 1541 that features a Spanish flag floating over Cuba and vignettes depicting the cannibalistic “Indians.” Below the artist’s birthplace of Hispaniola is a Latin notation describing its discovery by Columbus and its natural resources. Intervening in the extractive and exploitative mapping of “Spagnolia” spread across this loaded colonial text, Báez empowers the charming ciguapas to claim her voice out of the colonial stereotypes and instrumentalized versions.

Views of the rooms with Baez's paaintings
Another installation view of “Firelei Báez” at Boston’s ICA. Photo by Mel Taing 2024

What is interesting about the artist’s approach to those colonial documents is that her actions of decolonizing the narrative never imply a whiteout or erasure but instead engage with an addition, an overlaying of symbols that further complicate the story or let those elements explode in the collision of alternative versions, and we glimpse some possibilities to consider that story differently.

Some of the most captivating parts of the show are the two immersive installations, which allow the viewer to dive deeper into the alternative chronology and history Baez has created. Elaborating on Eduard Glissant’s concept of opacity, Báez’s immersive mirrored installation Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities) first invites viewers to explore the perception of infinite space beyond any racial bias with significant autonomy, despite this being very different from Kusama’s popular experience between the self and the art. Here, the work is conceived as a portal into another world, where cosmic figures stand on the edge and slightly outside a ‘framed’ architectural niche with paint distorting their heads and torsos. The work addresses questions of visibility, as the artist explains: “I think of opacity as, not necessarily armor, but as an assurance of a fuller self that you can traverse the world without picking up your entrails constantly. While many of her subjects meet our gaze, figures here are obliterated by a burst of color, allowing them a right to opacity.”

On the other side of the room, visitors can enter Drexcyen chronocommons (To win the war, you fought it sideways), 2019, a hypnotic grotto-like environment the artist has designed. Wrapped in a perforated blue tarp, a material often used as shelter and refuge following natural disasters, particularly in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, this installation allows one to walk through time and space to reexamine historical narratives, as diving into a night sky or an underwater world; the visitor is encouraged to wander between tropical plants and these two central points of attention, these two altars with female figures that appear from some places further east, or deeper south, in crossover once again of spiritualities. The installation encourages us “to psychologically inhabit a femme space is a transformative gesture,” as Báez says. “It is a radical positioning that could enable a different way of organizing space and bodies and nature and spirits—an otherwise world order.”

As a final act, this cross-cultural transformation and transition is completed with Madeleine (Rupture rapture maroon), 2022, in which Baez envisions a portal to another world in an explosion or implosion of colors and energies over an imitation of the French neoclassical painter Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s portrait of a young Black woman with her breast exposed. Hacking once again biased historical representations, Báez’s subject dons an indigo headdress adorned with an elaborate design iconic of Black liberation movements and practices. Then everything explodes and implodes in a burst of abstract strokes that also reactivate this heavy, historically connotative image, turning it into a magical passageway to another dimension where everything can still be told and reimagined.

As you leave the show, an enormous mural of a mermaid or the artist’s alter ego facing the bay accompanies you. This spiritual figure emits an energetic rainbow on the water and the horizon, encouraging the viewer to embrace all the wonders and alternative possibilities of Atlantic exchange history.

Firelei Báez” at ICA Boston runs through September 4.

Big murales with a woman covered by colors interacting with the sea wavess
Firelei Báez, Truth was the bridge (or an emancipatory healing), 2024. Photo by Mel Taing. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

Rewriting Maps and Resisting History: The Art of Firelei Báez at ICA Boston