On a brisk late-spring morning, Firelei Báez sat cross legged on the concrete floor of the ICA Watershed, engaged in the delicate work of finger-painting white details on the deep indigo surface of her work-in-progress. The micro belied the macro: Towering stands of stony ruins loomed 20 feet overhead at a precarious lean, but for all their heavy presence, they were light as air.
“See?” said Báez, impishly, tapping at the solid hide of a nearby archway, producing a hollow sound. “It’s just basic building materials, house materials, that we’ve made into something else.”
Something else, indeed. Inside the hangar-like emptiness of the Watershed, Báez has crafted an alternate universe of overlooked history at monumental scale. The piece itself is a rupture, both of memory and of a building itself. It evokes the 19th-century palace of Sans-Souci (which translates, blithely, as “worry free”) built in 1811 for the Haitian revolutionary leader Henri Christophe, who led the island’s independence movement from France. A UNESCO heritage site ravaged by earthquakes, the majority of the palace nonetheless still stands in northern Haiti, a weighty symbol of a Black colonial republic able to wrest control from its faraway rulers to chart a path of its own.
Báez calls it (deep breath): “To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction (19°36′16.9″N 72°13′07.0″W, 42° 21′48.762″N 71°1′59.628″W),” which happen to be the very coordinates of both the Watershed and the Sans-Souci palace, a place she knows well. The artist, with her blue surgical mask veiling a frequent, welcoming smile, has a close affinity with the stories these walls hold. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, she shared an island with the palace as well as a personal history. Her mother was Dominican, her father Haitian, and Haiti’s fraught dance with independence loomed ever large in their lives.
“As someone from the Caribbean, I’d always been taught this linear, hierarchical influence — you have people coming from Europe, or Africa, and maybe Asia, but there’s never a communication back,” she said. Báez later learned that huge swaths of France’s 17th-century economy were derived from its Caribbean island colonies. “And the one that revolted basically disappeared from world maps for generations,” she said.
Years on, as we draw to the surface so many long-submerged chapters of colonialism, Báez sees a moment primed for retelling. “If we’re brave enough,” she said, “we should be able to recalibrate.”
Thematically, Báez’s work dovetails into broader narratives of reckoning that for several years have been bending toward fuller tellings, but maybe never more urgently than right now. A year ago, her project was considered a casualty of the pandemic; initially scheduled for summer 2020, it was postponed as institutions like the ICA suspended programming under public health strictures. But the conversation around Báez’s installation may ultimately benefit from that lost year. In between, the pandemic helped expose inequities along racial and social lines that only heighten Báez’s excavation of a complex, often-overlooked tale.
On the walls of her leaning palace, Báez has stenciled, brushed, and hand-painted touchpoints that bring to light the complications of Haiti’s tumultuous coming-to-be. The deep blue recalls indigo printing, a West African textile tradition that made its way to the Caribbean and, ultimately, to the consumer cultures of Europe and North America. Grids of white dots (many stamped by Báez’s fingertips, one by one) share space with hand-painted fronds. Interspersed are images drawn from myriad movements, revolutionary and not: A clenched fist evokes the American Black Power movement, but it’s also an Azabache, used in Latin America as a protective symbol. A pouncing feline suggests the Black Panthers. A cluster of figures silhouetted in white might evoke the endless procession of UN peacekeepers and aid workers who have come and gone from Haiti for years, though Baez eschews too prescriptive a read. “I think that’s for the viewer, and whatever they might bring to it,” she said
Together, on the walls of Sans-Souci, they form a portrait of resistance across oceans and eras. But Báez doesn’t intend a history lesson so much as a point of communion. “It’s not crucial that people know all these things, or recognize everything,” she said. “What I want to do is give the clues for people to find their own journey, and if they choose to look deeper, it’s a gift that hopefully they can walk away with.”
What you won’t be able to miss, of course, are the lurching walls that seem to be almost growing from the concrete floor. Once the Watershed opens, their already looming presence will be amplified by the sea breeze set to rush between the east-west doors, flung open for the duration of the show. Strung above, bolts of blue plastic tarp, perforated just so, filter sunshine from a building-length slit of skylight, dappling the glow in a long golden band along the floor.
With the doors open, the tarps will flutter the sunlight into ripples, evoking a view from just below the ocean’s surface — and, maybe, the surfacing of forgotten stories and revolutionary ties across time and space. “We’ve been in a fabulated state for centuries,” Báez said. “For me, it’s been about creating a narrative when all you have are fragments — and a lot of times, fragments that have been tarnished by specific ideas. How do you breathe life back into it? How do you create a lineage inside an ahistoric space? That’s what this project is about.”
At the ICA Watershed, 256 Marginal St., East Boston. July 3-Sept. 6. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.com