The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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NOV 2018 Issue
Art In Conversation

FIRELEI BÁEZ with Hồng-Ân Trương

Portrait of Firelei Báez, pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Based on a photo by Lia Clay.
Portrait of Firelei Báez, pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Based on a photo by Lia Clay.
New York
Studio Museum and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
May 1 – November 24, 2018

I first encountered Firelei Báez’s work in 2012 in a group show called Cultural Transference at EFA Project Space, curated by Sara Reisman. Over the years, I watched in awe as Firelei’s work expanded and deepened in formal explorations of color, figuration, abstraction, and appropriated materials while creating a kind of new mythos that works to change the way we perceive ourselves and our present reality. Her work examines subaltern histories that are rendered invisible because of dominant master narratives which always work to flatten out the contours of what we embody as much more richly complex experiences. Her oftentimes large scale paintings and installations intervene upon pre-existing images, but also create new ones, using traces we might recognize as existing in the broader culture and subverting them. Firelei’s current exhibition, Joy Out of Fire, which is presented by The Studio Museum in Harlem and on view at the Latimer/Edison Gallery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, is a site-specific installation that includes mural size paintings celebrating women whose histories are preserved in the archives of the Schomburg. I visited Firelei in her studio in Inwood on a chilly Saturday morning to talk about her work. We connected over our immigrant and refugee experiences growing up in the U.S., the power of female role models, and our love of archival materials. 

Firelei Báez, Joy Out of Fire (detail), 2018 Acrylic on Taklon, 108 x 156 in. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago Photo: John Lusis

Hồng-Ân Trương (Rail): We were just talking about superstition and we both have some of our own family burdens.

Firelei Báez: Is it a burden or is it caring? What is it to have them all with you no matter where you go?

Rail: These kinds of superstitions really shape us. Even though they feel insignificant, they shape how we see the world. In your work, you incorporate these aspects of mythology. Is it intentional, or do you feel like this is the way that you just filter the world?

Báez: It is obviously lived, but I don’t think that's the core of how the work or why the work is made. I grew up hearing stories of Lilith-like wild women from the forest, Ciguapas, told to me as a warning: you can’t be too wild, too much of nature, don't be too independent. Everything that’s inscribed onto that figure becomes the antithesis of ideal femininity. And then as a kid I’d think, "There's so much freedom in that, why would I not want to be that? Why would I not want to be untraceable and fearless?" I think moving to the U.S. broke that acculturation process. If I had grown up in the Dominican Republic, I probably would have absorbed all of that. I probably would have been like “my ideal self is passive, my ideal self waits to be activated.” All the things that are etched into language and into the subtle little stories that are told to us. Coming to the States with third-wave feminism—even if it wasn't part of what my mom was telling me in the household—it was what the teachers were saying in the school and it was always being enacted in every public space.

Rail: If you grew up in the Dominican Republic and never moved to the U.S., it would have been epidermalized in a different way. But moving to the U.S. as an immigrant or refugee, there's always this sense of being on the outside and that suddenly the perspective is ruptured, and you can never recover it. I struggle with that all the time.

Báez: I know! It’s like you want to fit in, but you have this clarity that comes with being in the margin, and I feel like that's a really great space to be in.

Rail: It’s great but also kind of painful.

Báez: Oh, absolutely. There’s so much violence in it. Even though I was born there, I'm still never fully Dominican, never fully American, and in each space I'm the other. But I've mourned that, and moved on.

Rail: Do you feel like it's still in your work though? Because there's something very melancholic in your work.

Báez: The longing is always there.

Rail: That’s something that I've always appreciated about your work. There is so much exuberance and joy and hope, but also there's this very intense underlying feeling of melancholy and loss.

Firelei Báez, To write fire until it is every breath (detail), 2018 Acrylic on canvas, 108 × 192 in. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago Photo: Adam Reich

Báez: Yeah, I wonder if that comes out of existing between spaces. We are literally mashing up cultures. In Brazil they named it “saudade,” and it speaks of longing and joy at the same time. I feel like—because of the different diasporas that have gone through our countries—it’s something that you have to survive. You and I are here because somebody decided to survive, and that requires a balance of both [feelings]. One does not erase the other, we are a whole other way of being.

Rail: Yeah, it's a third way. But also, I struggle with the metaphors of it now, because I feel like we are so laden with those sort of metaphors from third wave feminism and identity politics. I've been reading more about the way your work has been talked about and just thinking about how . . . [Laughter] What is that look?

Báez: It's the filtering that comes out of a privileged space that always tries to put you in a corner in terms of how you define these other ways of being. It’s a weird way to describe it—but I feel like the fact that other people are not in the space that I know I exist in, does not stop me from being able to exist in it. There is still a translation process happening, still trying to get them to catch up. There has been an urge for certain specificity that ascribes to other wants and needs than what I intend with the work. I feel like that's part of being Caribbean. Fact versus fiction is so far from each other there. The fact that so much of the future happens there before it happens in the rest of the world. Peoples meet, economies happen, cultures collapse and come again all before they happen anywhere else. And that is something that is never really the narrative around the Caribbean. It’s always pleasure, escape, something to be used and consumed, rather than the fact that western identity has been and continues to be formed by actions that happen in this space. 

Rail: This makes me think of your work in relationship to anthropology. The way in which you're talking about time is interesting because anthropology is all about the relationship between the West and the rest of the world, and that classically, the discipline has constructed its relationship with the Other through temporal devices – like “Third Word” or “the primivitave” are subjective categories and temporal concepts. There is a privilege of time, where in non-western countries or the Global South, cultures always exist in a vacuum, yet always in relationship to Western teleology and a modernist historical timeframe. And so, what you're describing is a different experience of time that the West— from the outside—cannot see. But you are also speaking from a position of power to say that "I'm already existing here so it doesn't matter how you see it, this is how I'm existing." And the way in which one might kind of impose an understanding of your identity through that western lens in some ways that's inescapable, but you’re always struggling against that. I’m interested in how you think about your audience then. As a person of color living in the U.S. making art, how do you consider your audience?

Báez: I think that the first step for me was thinking of how people even consider love. Deleuze and Guattari had this article on Identitarian love, saying how the solution to the world’s problems is to learn to love the other. But that’s a lesson the Global South has been practicing for centuries. So it’s not necessarily the wrong thing to think, but perhaps that instead there should be a shift. The South should have space to learn to love itself. This might be the shift we’re going through now, hopefully, and that we’re going through the death throes of self-identifying, greedy, fragile love from the North. Hopefully that love will become something more expansive. 

Firelei Báez, Untitled (detail), 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 192 in. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago Photo: John Lusis

Rail: That really resonates, because I think there is a strong feeling of generosity in your work.

Báez: Hopefully not blind [generosity]. But I believe in people.

Rail: Do you still have a lot of family in the Dominican Republic?

Báez: I do. Dominicans and Haitians are adventurous so I have family in pretty much every continent. I have mixed cousins everywhere. The family on the island are all very proud of these familial threads all over the world. My mom and sisters are all in Miami so they’re the ones I’m always trying to go home to. They’re like my sunlight. 

Rail: You moved there when you were eight, right? 

Báez: Yeah. We spent a fall/summer here [in New York] where I spoke not a lick of English and all I could say as a kid was, “Me no speak English.” But I do remember, “Children are Our Future” being taught to us in the school auditorium.

Rail: Oh my god, I remember that.

Báez: Once we moved to the U.S. my mom was like, “I can’t raise you in New York.” So then we moved to Miami where all her savings were caught in this housing scheme so for the first few years we were moving around into different places, trying to find a job that could sustain us. Ours was like many other immigrant stories.

Rail: Yeah, my family was the same. Given that, I wonder about the support you had as an artist. Because I think a common immigrant story is that first generation kids are under a lot of pressure to do certain things because you’re going to be the one to bring your family out of the economic struggle. Did they support you?

Báez: They supported me in not gatekeeping. My mom was so busy she really couldn’t. She wasn’t there to foster tutoring or after school classes, but she was always like, “If you want to do that after school class, I’ll sign the paper for it. You’ll have to figure out everything; transportation, funding, whatever, but you have my blessing to do it.” And so there was always an expectation for me to do well in whatever I did. 

Rail: I read that your teacher at Miami-Dade let you know about Cooper Union, so was it not until then that you thought about seriously being an artist?

Firelei Báez, Elegant gathering in a secluded garden (or the many bridges we crossed) (detail), 2018 Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 192 in. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago Photo: John Lusis

Báez: I would get art trophies throughout school and be very encouraged, but when it was time to graduate, I got a reality check. My sisters and I were all told that there would be no way to help pay for college, specially for art school where I would go to fritter my time away. The most stable job my mom got was nursing. She was like a born-again nurse. She wanted everyone to become one. [Laughter] I knew I would probably be a very good nurse since I enjoy being a caregiver. (I loved babysitting my little sister and was told when I was around eight that I'd be a good mom, and all I could think was, can I just be a kid?) But I saw how brutal nursing is on the body and how unappreciated it is as a job; they're so undervalued. They cover ninety percent of healthcare in the hospital and they are the least valued of the whole staff. So I started taking classes at the local community college focusing on another means for healing, psychology. I figured it might help me understand what drove my family. The plan was to be a therapist. It was during one of the elective courses that my art professor Claudia told me about this free art school called Cooper Union.

Rail: And so then deciding to go to Cooper Union—did it feel like this huge leap?

Báez: It felt like the universe said, “Here, have a go. Run free.”

Rail: And your mom was supportive at that point? Because it was free?

Báez: It scared the bejeezus out of her. She still really wanted me to go into nursing so even when I was doing well at Cooper, she kept insisting the Red Cross would train me for free and as a bonus I would be able to travel the world. She wouldn't come to any of my graduations. She still says things like, “it's not too late to leave the hobby,” or “this is really hard on your body, you should reconsider your course in life.”

Rail: That's hilarious.

Báez: And I was like mom. [Laughter] I know she means well. Thing is she taught me to set my own course.

Rail: Your work is so much about strong female figures and reimagining these characters. Was your mom a role model for you?

Báez: She was. I don't think she would have intended to be, but I think by example she showed a resilience that I'm really grateful for in retrospect now, even when things seem inalterable. Being there and knowing that you just have to keep going, that there's no other option but to keep going.

Rail: Do you feel like you had other role models in terms of artists of color throughout your training that influenced you?

Firelei Báez, To write fire until it is every breath (detail), 2018 Acrylic on canvas, 108 × 192 in. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago Photo: Adam Reich

Báez: I learned to read my palm when I was in middle school because my lifeline was supposed to break right around eighteen. I was supposed to die. And then I found out around age eighteen that I have this little bubble that protects me, and a creative line that goes straight into the psychic space on the palm. And it usually means that it's creativity fostered through matrilineal sources. So I always had women in my life who influenced me. Day Gleason at Cooper Union was the one who fostered me there. At Hunter, I worked with Valerie Jaudon and my biggest mentors were Paul Ramirez Jonas and Nari Ward. But outside of Hunter I had Simone Leigh and Elia Alba and the two of them basically mentored me. Elia saw my work and was like “you're doing something I like. Let's be friends.” And not many people really foster and introduce you to the bigger world.

Rail: That's awesome. There’s such a need for that generosity and intentionality of building community among women of color artists and people of color artists. I feel like it's happening in a renewed way right now. I'd be curious to know how that's changed intergenerationally.

Báez: I think there are many movements that have happened and continue to happen that either through conscription or assimilation are quietly forgotten. While working on Joy Out of Fire Kimberly Drew introduced me to the incredible Combahee River Collective, who first conceptualized so many of the ideas we now take for granted such as intersectionality. She shared this with me at a luncheon celebrating the work of Pamela J. Joyner and Pulane Kingston, both women actively carving out space for black artists throughout the world. There’s always been a concerted effort of women and people of color to have affirmative spaces of love and regeneration. History actively tries to erase these gestures but that doesn't mean that they’re really gone.

Rail: That Collective really impacted me when I first learned of it in college. I think you’re right there's always been moments but right now, does it seem like there’s an intentionality behind it? Because now there’s a way that we have to contend with dominant institutions.

Báez: Yes, so much has been conscripted. Like Sephora selling witch packs.

Rail: Yeah. [Laughter]

Báez: It's been commercialized and comes at the risk of exploiting vulnerable systems.

But even in that witch pack, sage is being harvested in a way that is not sustainable and that's pretty much destroying a whole environment for the sake of this spiritual connection that some people are longing for. So we have to find ways that are not capitalistic. 

Firelei Báez, magnitude and bond (detail), 2018 Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 192 in. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago Photo: John Lusis

Rail: Do you feel like you've had moments where you've had to make difficult ethical choices around your work or because you didn’t want to sacrifice your integrity?

Báez: There have [been moments], and I feel that push from different spaces—oh you could have been doing this at this point if you hadn't made that choice. But I feel like a happier person for it.

Rail: For not having to compromise.

Báez: For not having to compromise. All through undergraduate school all I did was abstraction. I mastered abstraction because that was the thing that was being pushed and because figuration or anything dealing with culture was not accepted—it was the time of cultural identity burnout.

Rail: Totally, post-90s, early 2000s where everyone was like screw that, we need to move on.

Báez: Yeah, constantly being told “this isn't real. Why are we still discussing it?” So then how do you learn to talk about everything you love and care for in very abstract formal ways? I mastered being removed and formal and speaking about marginality through color. And I felt like oh my god—these are things that I could easily master. This is something I can do well in. But does that really speak fully to the things you want to speak of? We have now come full circle, where figuration is celebrated. But the art world is always going to be cyclical. It's always going to be something that moves back and forth according to people's tolerance or attention levels.

Rail: That makes so much sense, looking at your work. You have a strong formal element of abstraction and then you can incorporate all these other visual elements like photographs or documents that ground the work in actual political history. I think it's a beautiful marriage of all those things that have come together, so that moment has served you well.

Báez: Yeah if I had resisted learning that process I would have been less for it.

Firelei Báez, How to slip out of your body quietly (installation view), 2018. Kavi Gupta, Chicago. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta. Photo: John Lusis.

Rail: Let’s look at what’s in your studio right now.

Báez: These are based on WPA maps of specific monuments that are so fraught in the South. These maps were commissioned to document important sites. So the architectural plan for the Robert E. Lee monument is that one.

Rail: Did you screen print those onto canvas?

Báez: They were printed onto canvas and then painted over.

Rail: Are these still in progress?

Báez: Yeah.

Rail: What is your process usually? I'm seeing a specific document, or source material that you've begun with. Does that usually happen for you?

Báez: Usually in the smaller works. So, I do these vignettes. I call them clouds. Whenever I travel, I usually try to get documents of that space. Especially when they've been decommissioned from libraries, I feel like it's so revealing of what is no longer either on trend or acceptable within the archive. Libraries will get rid of them, and then they'll go into these second-hand bookstores. I got these [archival books] from a second-hand bookstore in New Orleans. 

Rail: So were you interested in Louisiana in particular?

Báez: I first started working with the Tignon, which was the sumptuary law that policed black women's bodies then [in the 18th century] Louisiana. Thinking of how our bodies are still being policed now and how there's been resistance then and there's resistance now.

Which, again, talking about that joy and that inherent violence in something—we exist as all these multiplicities at once. Aren't these books beautiful? Look at the title.

Rail: Oh my god! It’s perfect. Were you freaking out when you found this?

Báez: I did. [reading title out loud] “Our Islands and Their People.” They couldn't be more revealing.

Rail: No they couldn't. [reading off the page] “Someone has said that one eats in Cuba eggs, custards, and butter off the trees. And in all of the world there is no more favorite spot than this for the cultivation of fruits.”

Báez: Prime for exploitation.  

Rail: Yeah totally – the cheery language over the violence to come. So, you're working with this material now?

Báez: I'm working with that now. I like how language and images are so revealing of the center and the margins. So much of that cloud of book pages that I make is about marginalia, bringing contemporary marginalia in protest to that history. And it's funny because the one that I showed in Berlin, one of the criticisms of it was that I was over-painting—in a very crass, unsophisticated way—history. And it was reviewed by a very privileged white man. For me reading his critique was like him seeing his reflection. It was too uncomfortable. He needed that removal, of like, “oh you're dealing with your culture out there with this thing that's other and that was not affected by me. I'm not culpable. I'm not complicit in it.”

Rail: Can you talk a little bit more about that? There are strategies that you use in your paintings—you intervene upon, or expand upon, or subvert symbols, but when you're working on it, are you thinking of that white critic?

Báez: Yeah, but they're not always there. I think primarily you make the work for yourself. It's something that starts off as either pleasure or curiosity. And then the fact that it can speak outside of that is a bonus. But yes I’m sometimes thinking of them.

Rail: How do you decide on visual strategies for projects? For example, this process that you're in right now, with these large paintings, how are you thinking through your process?

Báez: The source of the things that inspire me when I'm painting is probably more revealing of that. I really love looking at the marginalia in Mughal paintings, like where the painter just went wild. The things that they could do freely that they couldn't do in the center. In spiritual paintings, like abstract tantric art, usually a mark accumulates. Color and mark-making really reveal the energy of that thing that is being intended. Not necessarily to depict it entirely, but to give the feeling of that space. This book page, this map index, is usually loaded with a specific history, or with a specific intent. So how do you act against that intent? 

This might sound like I’m meandering, but there's this really fun Japanese movie. It's about this young woman artist. And she makes these wild paintings, and they're beautiful. And her grandfather comes in, and he's like “these paintings are disrupting people's lives. You're causing death. You're causing a lot of really strong things to happen.” You need to have a moment of release in it, for all of this wild action to be balanced. And so, trying to find something between both where you have this intent to be like “Fuck you. This is a space that would not have allowed me to exist to begin with. And I exist despite it.” So creating a space for both together, giving a point of release, where maybe you can find some reconciliation, maybe some point of, I don't know, peace within the viewer irrespective of whether they are the person who might feel guilty.

Rail: This act of looking for the viewer is also temporally bound.

Báez: It usually comes in the way they're arranged, so that the process of looking and knowledge is cumulative. Even in the vignettes, it's usually about breaking time, so that, that’s the first dissonance, it's almost like creating a ritual.

Rail: A ritual of viewing?

Báez: A ritual of viewing or a ritual of entry or consumption. And consumption is always seen as flat, but when you think of the host in Catholicism, you have to incorporate both mind, body, and spirit to really be invested in that space. So you’re creating something that first takes you out of time, and that involves your body. This is usually the reason I make things at a large scale, so that your body is slowly immersed, and then you're experiencing this as an object before you're conceptualizing it as a painting. All the things that are hard and that are potentially seen as too big or too exclusive, can then be consumed, or have been absorbed before you start breaking them down.

Rail: So it becomes a physical experience that in some ways you cannot deny before you have to start thinking about it. Cultural anthropology is such an interesting framework for your work because of the way that the work is rooted in history, and real historical materials but also rooted in mythologies. And there’s a level of this kind of anthropological work that is about drawing on sensual registers rather than textual ones, drawing on embodied meaning and affective meaning, and about the agency of images. I wonder if you can talk about how you think about the emotional and sensual quality of your work—how you think it functions.

Firelei Báez, How to slip out of your body quietly (installation view), 2018. Kavi Gupta, Chicago. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta. Photo: John Lusis.

Báez: I think that's an open space where painting has really been acting. So for instance, when I look at Lynette's [Yiadom-Boakye] work, it is that emotional quality to an extreme. I love that she has so many cultural signifiers embedded into the production of the work, but you're consuming it as this self-possessed, sensuous space that just is. There's no question of it having a right to be. It is. And all you're left with is celebrating it. I think this is the fun part of painting.

Rail: What you just said about Lynette's work resonates with what one could say with your work.

Báez: Thank you.

Rail: With your work, there’s a feeling of sensual overcoming; it is exuberant. And I think the way the work embeds all this other information—whether it's the document, or photograph, or a pattern—that becomes the underlying violent texture that the emotional feeling has to rub up against quite uncomfortably.

Báez: Absolutely.

Rail: I want to talk about your current exhibition with the Studio Museum, now at the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I was taken aback by how unabashedly joyful that work is. The melancholy or violent undertones are not there. In the exhibition you are also using photographic representations in a way that feels different than previous work. They are not intervened upon in any way. I would love to hear you talk about that process of making that decision to use the material and not transform them into something more mythological.

Báez: I think the first instinct was that these were real women, and I wanted their real selves to be in conversation with the viewer. Thinking of the space where the work was going to be shown, I wanted to have the same thing that happens with Elia Alba's Supper Club, where we discuss so many things that are painful, but there's such joy in being, communing with each other, and also like the Black Artists Retreat that Eliza Myrie and Theaster Gates started in 2013. At the retreat, my god, most of the time we are just so happy to see each other in person, "Oh I can't believe you're here, I love you!" So, there is an affirming that happens in just having that space. And, unquestionably, the women in the Schomburg were absolutely extraordinary. They had to fight against so much, but they were real women. I wanted the two—their real and extraordinary selves—to be experienced in that same way, for there to be an atemporal convening, out of all these different things, and just having them in conversation with the viewer. I think it would have been a disservice to not bring them so directly.

Rail: I was really appreciative of the fact that you're so unapologetic about that. It feels like it draws on a long history of community mural painting that is about political resistance and about making visible the thing that is not reflected in the wider culture, which is positive reinforcements, positive images of our people.

Báez: They are meant to also reference Aaron Douglas’s beautiful paintings, Aspects of Negro Life, (1934) inside the gallery archive. He is a master colorist, so it’s about having this circulatory process happen within the archive, because when you turn away from the painting you see the archive—literally all the images that I was sourcing from—but then you look through onto Aaron Douglas and look back. His mural is on negro progress and it’s pretty much all men, so my work is a balancing point where it is all these women in celebration speaking back. We need space to just have that joy.

Rail: Speaking of the archival photographs that you actually include; that seemed to be the first time that you’ve done that in a kind of straightforward way, or have you done that before?

Báez: I have, but I feel like the reason why it was so overtly displayed was because I was responding to the archive. The exhibition was a literal response to the archive. For me, it was about making visible the legacy of this incredible resource. The Schomberg was started by an Afro-Latino—by a Puerto Rican—and it’s become the pre-eminent space for Black Diasporic studies in the world and it’s right there in Harlem. This was a key point in getting into a bigger world. 

Rail: What kind of work does the photograph do formally, especially considering that this show is site specific? The photograph is indexical, it does so many things differently than a painting does—it is pointing to something real; it’s fixed in a specific time and place. So how did you think about that in terms of this relationship between these spaces that you are creating and those really entrenched in time?

Báez: So many of those images were taken within the Schomberg, some of the Negro Actors Guild were performing on the stage downstairs so when you went downstairs you thought of these extraordinary people, these amazing super women dancing through the cosmos. They were literally dancing on the stage downstairs, so you are communing physically with them in both. 

Rail: I’m interested in how you think of this strategy. How do you reveal the thing and try to make people see differently?

Báez: Titling for me is usually the first doorway for the viewer. My installation, for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of the order, Anacaona (2018) at the Berlin Biennale is in reference to a real woman who had this epic life story. She was one of the queens of northern Haiti who died in exile in Pisa, Italy in the 1800s. There are no historic portraits of her, so saying her name, creating a central space for her, was a way for me as a visual artist to go about concretizing that incredible woman into something real. In most of my works I give so many points of entry, so many clues. So I can’t . . . what’s the story? They have to go for their own water. [Laughter]

Rail: You can’t lead a horse to the water? Something like that. [Laughter]

Báez: I’m giving an entire epic world to be nurtured by. The people who want to be nurtured will find it. To connect with a lineage of countless women of color, who like Marie-Louise Coidavid, fought for and created space for enacting black joy, resistance, and healing in spite of oppressive systems.. They were superheroes who were also very real. How can we not appreciate and celebrate that?

Rail: This makes me think of this question of the audience again and just like actually, your audience is me. Your audience is all the women of color artists who are in high school right now who are going to start to encounter your work. What a powerful move to say, “Well, no. Fuck you. I don’t need to speak to you, I am speaking to my people.”

Báez: It’s ok if the work can speak to audiences outside that, but hell yeah! [Laughter] You’re so right. I’m starting to see the beginnings of that. I keep being approached by Caribbean women and women of color who are like, “I followed art because of you, I am doing these different things because I saw your work as a high school student or a college student,” and it makes me so happy.

Rail: That’s how these things shift overtime. I think dealing with the center is an interesting question because I think we need to shift the way that we spatialize that relationship, because center and margin is inadequate in so many ways. I read an interview with one of the curators from the Berlin Biennial, which you were in, and she was asked about how she was going to decolonize the institution. She was very adamant that it was not her job to do that. We’re in the middle of this moment and it’s everybody’s job.

Báez: I feel that trying to find someone to rescue you has been the biggest fault in a lot of Western ideology. Like, “Oh I made this mess, can you clean it up for me? I’m sorry.” It’s not actually a given. I feel like women are some of the most generous beings in the world. Anything from who we let in to how we help the world. We don’t have to be. We’re so cultured into it, that it comes out of a place of pleasure. We enjoy nurturing, that doesn’t mean we have to nurture. 

Rail: It’s that classic concept of the “enemy educator.” That’s the role that people of color, and women of color especially, have played for so long. But it’s that resistance of being able to say, “That’s not my job, it’s our job, and it’s your job.”

Báez: Yeah, I don’t want you to be an ally, I want you to be in resistance, I want you to be all out angry that you’re complicit in this system.

Firelei Báez, How to slip out of your body quietly (installation view), 2018. Kavi Gupta, Chicago. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta. Photo: John Lusis.

Rail: So back to this question of the figure. I think there’s a way that you use the figure and you use historical references that grounds the work in both the past and the present, and even more specifically, there’s this feeling of the work that seems like it could have been made at different moments in time. There’s a sense of the 1980s and 1990s and identity politics in your work, but then you also evoke a sense of Afro-futurism, the way you incorporate mythology and a space of the future in your work. Can you talk about this aspect of time in your work, how you think about it?

Báez: That is a part of being a product of an accessible information age. Your mentors are not so singular; you are not bound to whoever is physically teaching you, or to the work you’re seeing in a gallery or someone right before you. You have this bounty and you are the filter. There’s chaos, but so much freedom.

Rail: What you are describing could be misunderstood as a post-modern pastiche, which is very cynical. But this is different.

Báez: You mean like in Forever Now [at the MoMA in 2014 – 2015], right? So much of it was posited through irony, and irony inherently has a remove that takes away ownership. I don’t mind being removed so long as it allows you to really look—almost like a Buddhist, getting rid of your emotions so you can be present in the moment. But so much of irony is not at all that, it’s about, “Isn’t that funny that this thing happens in the world?“ But I’m not involved in that. 

Rail: I think that is a really important aspect to your work—that it’s not ironic, and it’s also totally unapologetic about not being ironic and being emotional.

Báez: I think there are moments of irony in it, but they are usually so hard that it doesn’t read. People might say, “She can’t possibly be this dry.” [Laughter] But also, again, syncretism is a way of processing what we were just talking about, that it is an alternate model for being a product of the information age without having to resort to irony. You are having these models coming out of a syncretic culture to begin with and being able to exist as multiple at once, so not having to be ’70s, ’80s, post, or anything—you’re all at once.

Rail: Also, thinking differently about syncretism in the sense of not being bound to this teleology that’s based on a Western modernist narrative, whereas to embody that is to understand that actually, that’s how cultures have always evolved.

Báez: We always put it as a post-internet thing. It’s funny thinking that how art is produced now as “post-internet, post-information age,” but so many different places have been adapting information in that same way.

Rail: I think people associate [the internet age] with speed.

Báez: Yeah, I’m always on Caribbean Standard. [Laughter] It’s always ahead and behind, all the time. So, you’re anachronistic all the time.

Rail: In the same ways, like what we were talking about before, being on the margins you are always anachronistic. I think that position, and this very intentional act of recognizing the power in that, rather than give into it.

Báez: To fight it or be so destroyed by it.

Rail: Yeah, I was thinking a lot about the writer Gloria E. Anzaldúa. There’s a quote from Borderlands I want to end our interview with, “I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own god out of my entrails.”

Báez: Love that!

Rail: I think it encompasses your work a little bit.

Báez: Every part of it.



Hồng-Ân Trương

Hồng-Ân Trương is an artist, writer, and activist based in Durham, North Carolina. She is an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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