Contemporary Reactions: Painting Diaspora

FullSizeRender6It’s difficult to pass by Patterns of Resistance, the solo exhibition of 2015 Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting winner, Firelei Báez, without being drawn in by her vibrant and large-scale paintings.  Inspired by social movements in the U.S. and the Caribbean, Patterns of Resistance is a collection of pencil drawings and gouache paintings often representing imagery acquired throughout resistance movements, such as the azabache, a black coral charm in the shape of a fist.  During his second visit to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, I spoke with Memphis-born Joey Mayes about why Báez’s exhibition was his favorite.


“I like that she uses the fractals—the Fibonacci type sequence,” said Joey. “Most often, the Fibonacci type sequence is used as a way to place objects in paintings, whereas she’s using it as a background.” Joey mentioned this in front of the large pink and green portrait, left purposefully unlabeled, that is visible upon first entrance into UMOCA.


Báez endeavors to show the widespread intersections of diasporic experiences by drawing from traditions from diverse cultures.  “It feels like simultaneity is huge with her, because you have to recognize how many processes are functioning all at once in regards to resistance, and how it’s impossible to find a cohesive narrative in a general resistance movement or activism in general,” said Joey.  “I feel like she represents that in her paintings.  The thing that keeps us apart is usually our differences in ideologies and our differences in backgrounds, and I like how she uses patterns to intersect the imagery of the fist, the comb and the panther throughout.”


Joey’s poignant commentary led me to ask where he learned so much about resistance movements and political activism in general, and he said he’s been reading about these issues since he was a teen.


“It’s a very cohesive exhibition.  I like all of [Báez’s works], but especially this one in the back,” said Joey.  He points out his favorite, the large green portrait in the back of the gallery. He then continued to remark on the various plant and landscape imagery Báez employs in the paintings, speculating about what the plants he recognized might mean and noting that they come from different parts of the world.




While the fractals and patterns used in Báez’s work complement the literal repetition of the recognizable objects, such as the azabache or the comb, she also references how various resistance movements intersect in ideology. Her choice to keep the “mistakes” in her work, such as unerased sketch lines and torn paper edges, might reference the turbulent and complex journeys taken by resistance movements, and the tumultuous pasts from which they emerge.  Her work’s reclaimed mistakes, as well as the common threads woven throughout her imagery, leave a layered and lasting conceptual imprint on audiences.


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Written and photographed by Visitor Services and Specia Events Intern Madison Donnelly