When Firelei Báez, winner of the 2015 Catherine Doctorow Prize, presented an art talk about her work at UMOCA, we found ourselves impressed and fascinated, nodding along with the occasional moment of realization—“Oh!”—as Báez placed her works into context.
Báez’s works are distinguished by a stunning and rich visual language, a testimony to the African diaspora and its intertwined cultural histories and narratives. Signaling to an intricate emblem of the Empire D’Haiti, Báez explains that our conceptions of Haiti today largely focus on a country ravaged by revolution and natural disasters, and that we often forget the thriving empire it once was. By creating her own emblems with the black panther, the black power fist, the Latin American azabache, pick combs and more, Báez creates an emblem that signifies the diversity of the African diaspora—where it came from, and where it is today.
By incorporating texture into her work—think of the large-scale folds in Patterns of Resistance, or Báez’s intricate takes on Caribbean headdresses and Louisiana headscarves—Báez introduces new ideas and narratives to her viewers, but not in an overwhelming way. Instead, she explains, her intent is for viewers to be able to look at the whole pattern before noticing the tiny details and allowing yourself to be consumed by the ideas and visuals presented. When you peer closely at one painting, for example, you might notice a tiny landscape, reminiscent of traditional East Asian paintings, an intentional detail that pays tribute to the East Asian communities in areas, like the Dominican Republic, that are often considered black or Hispanic.
Báez’s works begin from her need to make and create, but they’re fully formed by the many histories and concepts that fascinate and intrigue her. In one series, Báez did a daily documentation of the many silhouettes of her hair, painted the color of the brown paper bag, bringing up the American South’s arbitrary test for racial stratification: If your skin was darker than a paper bag, you were considered black. In the Ciguapa series, Báez studies the female trickster of Dominican folklore, re-conceptualizing the mythical creature while also personifying western notions about the unkempt wilderness of the so-called “tropics.” And in Prescribed Seduction & A Blind Man’s Bluff, Báez takes books that were banned from libraries and details female figures in poses that would not be considered traditionally feminine, sensual, or desirable.
At the end of Báez’s talk, she answered several of the audience’s questions, clarifying that the Doctorow Prize allowed her to create the new body of work currently exhibiting in Patterns of Resistance, sharing a moment with one audience member about the agency of black women in Louisiana, and agreeing when audience members asked about certain art historical themes they noticed in her work. The final question, posed by artist and educator Jorge Rojas, asked Báez what advice she had for the many young artists in the audience.
— LE (@ArtsHumana) September 25, 2015
For Báez, it’s a commitment to a rigorous studio practice: a devotion to work and create; to generate and incorporate ideas; to be in conversation with multiple art forms, histories, and cultures; and to embrace authenticity.
The Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting is made possible with the generous support of the Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation.