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How artist Firelei Báez transforms spaces to build connections


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: We learn history in many ways, through books, documents, maps, and sometimes through art.

Jeffrey Brown introduces us to an artist exploring connections between her native Caribbean island and the wider world.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

A boat ride across Boston Harbor, a good way to see this city with its rich history, and the best way to get to Watershed, an old warehouse in East Boston's shipyard now converted to an enormous art space by the Institute of Contemporary Art, or ICA.

On display inside, a very different approach to history.

Are we meant to be underwater?

Firelei Baez: Either under a night sky or on seafloor. Choose your adventure.

Jeffrey Brown: Forty-year-old Firelei Baez artist has built a kind of giant ruin, one visitors can walk under and through, above a deep blue mesh or tarp.

Firelei Baez: We had to perforate and then angle the lights just right.

Jeffrey Brown: To allow light to filter through and create a shimmering, watery effect, below, a strange structure, its walls lurching at wild angles ready to collapse.

Firelei Baez: I'm taking, like an archaeologist, a frame, and through this act of imagination, if you want to call it, fabulation, you can then get a bigger, truer picture of who we.

Jeffrey Brown: Baez herself was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and Haitian father. She came to Miami at age 8.

Firelei Baez: Beauty brought comfort to me. I moved around a lot as a kid. And that meant a different room, different spaces. And one way to anchor into space, one way to claim this new room as my own was to transform.

I had the ability to, with a bit of fabric, some paper, maybe some paint, if I could get it, just change it into whatever my mind could imagine.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Did you think of it as art at that point?

Firelei Baez: And I did not think of it as art.

Jeffrey Brown: No.

Firelei Baez: I just knew that it was this thing that I -- was within my reach that could transform worlds.

Jeffrey Brown: Formal training came at Cooper Union and Hunter College in New York and she now lives and works in the Bronx.

She's best known as a painter, transforming worlds in a very literal way by taking old maps, documents and other archives and painting directly onto them, layering histories and showing connections. The products, like sugar, that move from Caribbean fields to cafes in Paris, the bodies of people who work to produce them, but also the revolutionary ideas that moved between Europe, Haiti and the British colony.

Firelei Baez: What I am so excited about personally is the fact that this place that I come from is so enmeshed with other places in the world in ways that we are not even aware of or used to thinking of.

Jeffrey Brown: She often includes figures from Caribbean mythology like the Ciguapa, a powerful female trickster, in some tellings, witch-like she.

In Boston, Baez painted a Ciguapa on a large mural.

Firelei Baez: I was always told of her as a warning of like, if you don't behave, you're going to be like a wild Ciguapa.


Firelei Baez: And, as 5-year-old you think, OK, she's traceless, she's beautiful, she gets to be fierce, she gets to break generations of family troubles.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Firelei Baez: Why would I not want to do this? A bad hair day? No.


Firelei Baez: So...

Jeffrey Brown: So, she became a character for you.

Firelei Baez: So she became kind of like this superhero character of potentials.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

For this project, she's gone bigger, recreating Haiti's Sans-Souci Palace built in 1813 for King Henri Christophe. It's a symbol of revolution and independence from France, but itself left in ruin from earthquake damage in 1842.

And she's built it in Boston to highlight direct connections through shipping and trade, and, especially here in East Boston, migration. This part of the city has long been an entryway and home for waves of immigrants, especially in recent years from Central America.

There's rubble on the ground, barnacles clinging to the walls, a sense of scale and mystery.

Firelei Baez: Almost like a cairn or this thing that's emerging out of the ground. It's a place for imagination, but it's made of everyday materials.

I think I want people to be able to take everyday things and imagine their potential. It's plaster, wood, paint, the same house paint you would have in your home to paint your walls.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's decorated with patterns, designs and images from various cultures that have interacted through time.

Firelei Baez: These are symbols and colors that are meant to suggest different points of connection from the Black diaspora in Latin America, in North America and the Caribbean, and primarily in West Africa.

For instance, when you look at something like this, it's a melding of the symbol for the Biafran lion with African-American black panther.

Jeffrey Brown: Baez says her work is always about engaging the senses first to grab the viewer with beauty and imagery. Then, she hopes, we will look harder.

Firelei Baez: A lot of times, when we think of history, we're taught to imagine it as something distant and separate from ourselves. And I want us to realize we're constant threads that are speaking forward and backward. Our actions are predicated by people before us. And our lessons learned can maybe dictate how -- what we pass on.

Jeffrey Brown: Firelei Baez's reimagining of history is on exhibit through September 6.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Institute of Contemporary Art Watershed in Boston.

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