Firelei Baez: Celestial Gazing at the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora
Seldom, do I walk into a high-profile New York gallery and see a Dominican-born, female artist’s work featured on the walls, or in Firelei Báez’s case – activating the space. The Bronx, NY-based artist is currently exhibiting A Drexcyen Chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways) at James Cohan Gallery, months after joining its portfolio. In her debut solo show with JCG, Báez converts the gallery into a celestial swath by applying her artistic prowess to capture Caribbean identity, folklore, and her-story.
The viewer is immediately confronted by a formidable blue tarp tent, similar to those used for shelter and protection. The tarp tent prompts the question, where is this leading me? One soon learns that it leads to a celestial oasis where palo santo permeates the room; aloft punctured tarp replicates the celestial stars during the Haitian Revolutionary War of 1804; and two divinely painted female portraits gaze back at the audience.
Engaging with the female portraits, one can’t but help feel the hypnotic pull of their eyes. Báez deliberately omits the mouths and noses of the two subjects, ultimately focusing the viewer’s attention on their gaze. Looking closely, one grows appreciation for Baez’s dexterity with acrylic and oil. The subjects are wearing elegantly adorned headdresses. Like much of Báez’s work, the headdresses carry inherited symbolism, stemming from a time when women’s freedom of expression was silenced by laws requiring them to cover their hair. Focusing on the headdresses, Báez reminds us how far we have come, but exclaims how much work remains to be done. Especially, when women’s abortion rights across the globe are being challenged by regressive ideologies.
Báez utilizes several distinct mediums to create a meditative space for her audience. She excavates the past with intent to enlighten today’s discourse while actively re-contextualizing a future narrative.
Firelei Baez’s A Drexcyen Chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways) is on view through June 16, 2019 at James Cohan.