In the spate of gruesome heat late last month, the Institute of Contemporary Art opened its East Boston Watershed annex for the season in the most literal of ways, with industrial garage doors flung wide to let a thick sea breeze flow from end to end.
Its cooling effect was minimal, though welcome all the same — and not just for slight relief from the heat. High above and draped to one side, the breeze fluttered a canopy of cobalt tarpaulin, flecked with small tears, that threw undulating patterns of light all around. It was a prompt to the imagination: Amid the soft, cascading waves, it wasn’t hard to imagine yourself underwater.
After a yearlong COVID-19 hiatus, the Watershed opened its third season with Firelei Báez’s “To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction (19º36′16.9″N 72º13′07.0″W, 42º21′48.762″N 71º1′59.628″W).” It would have opened a year ago, all things being equal. As the pandemic has revealed, they’re not equal and never were, and the project has taken on more urgent meaning in these raw and heightened times. Under the flutter of blue, stony archways lurch in a rough act of becoming. You’ll take your own meaning, but to me, they’re straining for the surface, determined for new life in the bright light of day.
How it is that they’re submerged is a question to ask yourself. Do you know Haiti’s Sans-Souci Palace, the regal home built in 1813 for Henri Christophe, who helped lead the nascent Black republic out of bondage and to freedom in a revolution against its faraway French rulers? Or how the palace was damaged beyond repair by an earthquake in 1842 and now stands in heaps, an inadvertent symbol of the beleaguered country’s long history of tumult, the most recent chapter unfolding just this week with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse?
It was all new to me until I met Báez at the Watershed in May, where she had her hands full painting batik-style motifs on the ruin’s walls, often with her fingertips. Báez, 40, now based in New York, knew the history well, both from growing up in the Dominican Republic and from her Haitian father. The parallel revolutionary histories of Haiti and the United States — two rebellions within decades of each other, both over European colonial powers — struck her when she arrived here as a student, at least partly for how world histories narrowed to a point in the United States, often to the exclusion of all others.
Take her piece as literally as you can — the coordinates of the title push Sans-Souci and Boston Harbor side by side — and you’ll see the intent: Báez is putting forth the simple notion that, in the colonial world, the quest for freedom from faraway oppressors was not unique to the United States.
But the proposition of “To breathe full and free” is far more expansive. Báez, who works primarily as a painter, has always engaged with narratives of dominance in history — how one story thrives, while another withers in the collective mind-set. Her urges are not literal but poetic — the indifferent churn of time in high-above ripples of shadow and light, the stony silence of a ruined structure freighted with forgotten significance.
In her paintings, old maps of colonized places often appear as motifs to be gently violated, their matter-of-fact surveys painted over with flora and fauna from a place now claimed by another. Just inside the Watershed, a vast mural greets you: Awash in a violent sea are maps and navigational charts in antique script (“The Sea of New England,” “St. George’s Bank”). At one end of the mural, an explosion of color knots tropical motifs — palm fronds and tropical flowers, a clutch of feathers — into a vibrant bouquet of difference.
It’s not hard to see the point. The mural asserts a place for Caribbean history in the violent to-and-fro between Africa and the Americas. It yearns for connection, a memory jog that builds back the presence of those lost in the fairy tale of American Exceptionalism.
“To breathe full and free” intertwines forces seen largely as good — freedom and independence — tainted by prejudice and not worthy of unexamined reverence. Boston Harbor is a resonant place, alive with revolutionary history. The Boston Tea Party of 1773, which took place within easy eyeshot of the Watershed itself, was a key moment leading to the American Revolution.
But the harbor was also the site of a brisk 18th-century slave trade, and later a key entry point for immigration (as well as home to an immigrant detention center). Hidden in the weathered arches of Báez’s listing Sans-Souci are speakers that softly emanate first-person stories of immigrants arriving in Boston to new lives.
The piece asks a simple question to which there’s no adequate justification: Why do some stories rise while others sink to the bottom? A generational allergy to complexity is part of the reason. Boston, a liberal bastion loathe to see itself included in the uglier parts of the country’s history, is another. Báez, for her part, offers a gentle, fantastic reconsideration with fresh learning ripe for the taking.
In Haiti, Sans-Souci is undecorated, a pile of pale stone. In the Watershed, the blue walls of Báez’s version are festooned with patterns and images that evoke West African indigo dye, a popular early-American trade good produced by enslaved people in the South. (Báez imbues hers with revolutionary sentiment: A raised fist that evokes the Black Power movement, a pouncing feline that calls to mind the Black Panthers.) It shouldn’t surprise that Boston Harbor was one of the primary export points for indigo. Profit from slave labor was in the very blood of this city, a wealthy port connected to European markets.
Imperfect freedom has always been the American way. Haiti, in its own struggle for independence, offers some lessons. In a recent interview with NPR, Marlene Daut, a historian at the University of Virginia and the author of several books on the Haitian Revolution, explained how Haiti’s long-ago vision of a free republic might offer some improvements on the US version. The Haitian Revolution had become an all-out anti-slavery war by 1802, driving the country’s constitution to radical egalitarianism: It banned conquest as a national pursuit, explicitly rejecting colonialism. It outlawed slavery, which later inspired abolition movements here in the states. And it demanded a society where merit was the only differentiating factor between individuals, never skin color.
The Declaration of Independence, as we’re now frequently reminded, evaded every one of those points. “(T)he story of the Haitian Revolution and Haitian independence teach us what exactly was missing from the US Declaration of Independence,” Daut told NPR, explaining that the Haitian constitution was more closely a template for the Black Lives Matter movement, which, at its heart, demands the completion of unfulfilled American promise.
All this in mind, “To breathe full and free” is less a title than an aspiration: Of best intentions not met, and the hard learning yet to come.
FIRELEI BÁEZ: TO BREATHE FULL AND FREE: A DECLARATION, A RE-VISIONING, A CORRECTION (19º36′16.9″N 72º13′07.0″W, 42º21′48.762″N 71º1′59.628″W)
At the ICA Watershed, 256 Marginal St., Boston, through Sept. 6. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org