‘She Was Meant to Be So Fearful’: Watch Artist Firelei Báez Reimagine a Cruel Female Character From Dominican Folklore as a Feeling Person

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Firelei Báez: An Open Horizon (or) the Stillness of a Wound." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

For the Caribbean-born artist Firelei Báez, her childhood creativity was associated with causing trouble and upending the status quo. They even called her “I don’t know if it was ‘The Demolisher’ or ‘The Hellion,'” she says in an exclusive new video interview.

Filmed as part of the new season of Art21’s series New York Close Up series, the painter delves into her upbringing on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, explaining how it informed her lusciously detailed works which blend mythical stories from folklore, scientific taxonomy, and a range of perspectives from the African diaspora.

The beauty in Báez’s work, which often centers on the female figure, is underpinned by a current of something sinister. But the artist sees the bodies she paints as misunderstood. In the interview, Báez describes the Dominican mythological trickster figures, the ciguapas, who appear as cunning seductresses with backward feet that literally lead people down the wrong paths. 

“She was meant to be something that made us so fearful, that we could be quiet for long enough to be groomed into civility,” Báez explains. But what if we could shift that perception and celebrate these figures as individuals?

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Firelei Báez: An Open Horizon (or) the Stillness of a Wound." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Firelei Báez: An Open Horizon (or) the Stillness of a Wound.” © Art21, Inc. 2021.

“The understory,” Báez continues, “is they are highly independent, they’re self-possessed, and they feel deeply.” In her painting Untitled (Le Jeu du Monde) (2020) the figures are represented not as running amok, but shape-shifting, morphing between species, emphasizing the false notion that identity is fixed. 

Beginning in July 2021, the artist will present her largest sculptural installation to date at Boston’s ICA Watershed, which imagines archaeological ruins from Haiti that have cropped up in the bustling city. Drawing on Boston’s proximity to water and its history of revolution, Báez plans to evoke ideas of international exchange, culture, and identity.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up seriesbelow. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. “Firelei Báez” will be exhibited at ICA Watershed from July 3 through September 6, 2021. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org

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