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On the first of June, 2011, Firelei Báez painted a small silhouette self-portrait. She made another each day that month, her hair changing from frizzy to straight, left down or fastened into a bun or ponytail. She never added other features—only the same sharp brown eyes staring defiantly from 30 faces. And each day, she started her process the same way, tinting the paint for her face exactly the hue of a brown paper bag.
In the United States, the color of a paper bag was once the dividing line between privilege and discrimination for people of color. At age 36, the New York-based artist, a self-described “Caribbean hybrid,” wasn’t alive to suffer through the 19th-century skin color test, but she knows well the kind of prejudice it perpetuated. That oppression is evident in the series of self-portraits displayed in columns and rows like a calendar for the month of June. Part of its title asks a bold question: Can I Pass?
The work is just one of the evocative standouts in Firelei Báez: Bloodlines, a richly layered and timely exhibition on view at The Andy Warhol Museum through May 21. The show, which includes large-scale paintings on paper, drawings, and collages, made its debut this past fall at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. The larger Pittsburgh presentation includes six new works and a site-specific mural.
Jessica Beck, associate curator of art at The Warhol, was drawn to Báez’s work when she saw it for the first time in 2015 at Art Basel in Miami. That same week, she traveled to the Pérez Art Museum, where, by coincidence, Bloodlines was on view. She knew she wanted to make the work available to audiences in Pittsburgh.
“The palate is bright and beautiful and there is something sumptuous about the whole experience,” Beck says. “When you look deeper, you realize there are loaded images about race and identity, and the history of slavery and the oppression of people of color. That tension is fascinating. It’s subversive beauty, taking symbols of oppression and turning them into symbols of power.”
The daughter of a Dominican mother and a father of Haitian descent, Báez spent her childhood in the Dominican market city of Dajabón. “In the Dominican Republic, one drop of white makes you closer to white. The opposite is true in the United States,” says Báez, noting that there’s a fluidity of color and race in the Caribbean that doesn’t exist in her adopted country. She moved to Miami with her family at age 10.
Báez channels that sense of otherness into her art, expressing what falls in between oppressive social categories. As the brown paper bag cut through American society—it was first employed by light-skinned blacks to keep dark-skinned blacks out of nightclubs, churches, and fraternities—a “fan test” settled suspicions about race in the Dominican Republic. Standing in front of whirling blades, those whose hair moved in the breeze were deemed white and worthy of entry. If the hair was coarse and held firmly in place, the person was considered black and would be turned away.
With her 30 self-portraits—bearing the full title Can I Pass? Introducing the Paper Bag to the Fan Test for the Month of June—Báez explores the politics of hair and arbitrariness of skin color. The work represents a larger series of self-portraits the artist created from 2011 to 2013 as a daily “warm up” in her studio. “I went into this project thinking that if I have to lock myself into something, if I have to see myself through a specific filter, as many people of color are forced to do in the United States, what would it be?,” Báez said in an interview for the exhibition’s bilingual catalogue. “Portraiture, which has a very clear history in Western tradition, seemed like the ideal medium to talk about these contested issues.”
“In the Dominican Republic, even if you look exactly like your neighbor in Haiti, you are unwilling to acknowledge your blackness.” – FIrelei Báez
Looking at herself based on historical assessments of race “was traumatic,” she says. “It’s psychological violence. It’s seeing yourself in very strict parameters and analyzing the ridiculousness of it. I was seeing myself where I fit in between two social tests.”
Báez grew up near the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti. From her front yard she could see the contrast between the dire, deforested landscape of Haiti and the verdant countryside of the Dominican Republic. Dividing the two countries—one predominantly Hispanic, the other mostly black—on the island of Hispaniola is a complex, tense history and the Dajabón River, the site of tragic bloodshed. In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered his troops to kill all Haitians living on his side of Hispaniola. More than 20,000 Haitians were murdered trying to cross the waterway.
“I remember as a child always being aware that I lived along the border, at this in-between space. It was only after coming to the States I could express what I was feeling,” she says. Looking back, “No one in the Dominican Republic acknowledged their blackness. We are caramel or wheat. There is a pigmentocracy [a term used to describe race relations and social hierarchies in the region]. In the Dominican Republic, even if you look exactly like your neighbor in Haiti, you are unwilling to acknowledge your blackness.”
Though Báez grew up in male-dominated Latin culture, the women in her family were anything but passive. In fact, she said her great-great grandmother divorced at a time when it was taboo in the Dominican Republic, forging a long line of “female badasses” in her family. Women subverting oppression is a central theme in her work, and she draws from both her Caribbean background and the African-American experience.
Báez creates ornate, bold contemporary images of women of color by tapping into historic and sci-fi references. Many of her bright, lush works conjure up mythical and powerful female creatures said to haunt the mountains of the Dominican Republic, using their magical powers for both good and evil, depending on who encounters them. The fabled tricksters—known as ciguapas in Dominican folklore—have their feet pointing backwards so they cannot be traced. In the work titled Ciguapa Panterna (to all the goods and pleasures of this world), the female form is voluptuous and fierce, plants sprouting from her head, her powerful legs patterned with ornate tattoos from various cultures. Whether ugly or beautiful, Báez uses these figures to investigate womanhood and race.
She also turns female passivity on its head. Growing up in Miami, Báez would see poet Jose Marti’s famous passage “palms are waiting brides” on welcome signs, depicting women as passive creatures waiting for love. In her painting titled Palmas for Marti, she tops the body of a ciguapa with a head made out of palm trees. But rather than waiting, these palm trees are running, waiting for no man.
“When you look deeper, you realize there are loaded images about race and identity, and the history of slavery and the oppression of people of color.” -Jessica Beck, associate curator of art at The Warhol
“The ciguapa, the female trickster, doesn’t wait for anyone,” she says. “It’s basically a rebuttal of the line in that poem that brides are meant to wait. The palm trees are running away from the poem. They are the runaway bride. You can be embedded into a strict gender norm, but you can also be feared.”
In other works, women wear elaborate headdresses, referencing the oppression of Creole women in 18th-century New Orleans. When the city was under Spanish rule, the governor ordered free Creole women to wear tigons, or handkerchiefs, to cover their curly hair so it wouldn’t seduce white men. “They outlawed black hair in order to put them closer to the servant class,” Báez explains. “The women responded by making the most luxurious headdress.”
In her large-scale painting, Sans-Souci (This Threshold Between a Dematerialized and a Historicized Body), a woman’s face is both abstract and representational, similar to the artist’s own silhouette self-portraits. Her hair, however, is covered by an elaborate and intricately-painted headdress. As a way to reinterpret the woman’s rebellion, Báez infuses the patterns of their tigons with marks of resistance, including black power fists and black panthers, a logo for the Black Panther Movement. A means of oppression becomes a means of power. Her female subjects are strongly connected to both a past and present understanding of race. Her women glow in their subversive beauty.
When Beck approached Báez about showing her work at The Warhol, the artist was thrilled. “Andy Warhol has had such an impact. Every after-school art program will more than likely have an Andy Warhol grant. You always think of the money, the bravura, the celebrity. But he really payed it forward,” says Báez.
Upon visiting the museum, she discovered a side of Warhol unknown to her, as she pored over the sketches from Warhol’s 1950s Boy Book filled with sensual drawings of men’s faces, torsos, feet, and other body parts. She also was fascinated by the small votive candles and other religious symbols the Byzantine Catholic artist collected.
“My exposure to Warhol has always been the celebrity facile experience,” says Báez. “Coming to the museum, you see the intimate love life and family life that is not always exposed. You get a hint of the Catholic background he held along with his more commercial, flashy celebrity side. It was surprising. I really like the intimacy of that. As he transitions to a fine artist, you see the disparity of his flashy exterior life with his delicate interior life.”
“Firelei creates a world with her work, one that is inclusive and warm, but that asks us to think critically about our shared histories.” – Jessica Beck, associate curator of art at The Warhol
Báez also was struck by the beauty of Warhol’s oxidation paintings, created when Warhol invited friends and acquaintances to urinate on canvases he had covered in metallic paint, creating abstract forms. “They are visceral and still so gorgeous. The fact that they keep changing with time makes them so alive,” she says.
Beck appreciates the parallels between the ways Báez and Warhol experimented with fluidity. She sees how Báez toys with the arbitrariness of race classifications with her Can I Pass? paintings, while Warhol constantly blurred the line between masculine and feminine.
Another similarity: the patterning on their human figures. In a series of mid-1950s sketches of young men, Warhol embellished his drawings with props of pearls, flowers, and crosses, while Báez adorns her female figures with black power symbols, reclaiming both their femininity and power. Beck also notes that Báez uses a “palette that relates to the Caribbean experience, but that also evokes the florescent tones of Warhol’s Pop palette.”
For the Pittsburgh viewing of Bloodlines, Beck was able to add six new works, including one vibrant abstraction titled body speaking to the space you fill and you keep. With its bold stratum of paint, the viewer sees splashes of color before they can make out details of a landscape and a human form. “It’s almost like a Rorschach test,” says Báez. “I give them half and the viewer makes up the other half.” Beck chose to open the exhibition with this work. “It’s a beautiful, fresh-from-the-studio abstraction that brings a strong pulse to the beginning of the show. So much of Firelei’s work has this animated energy and also uses the body as a place of departure.”
With the help of The Warhol’s new Teen Council, Báez also created a site-specific wall painting using indigo paint. “Indigo has such a weighted history—so valuable that it could be used as currency,” says Beck. At one time, a bolt of indigo cotton could be traded for a slave. “The process of making indigo was particular to West Africa,” explains Báez. “Something that had been an emblem of culture and progress and specific to the region was then used to further exploit that and take it away.”
“The work is beautiful and striking,” Beck says of Bloodlines. “Firelei creates a world with her work, one that is inclusive and warm, but that asks us to think critically about our shared histories. And to think critically about the gaps in the historical narrative. Specifically, how certain histories are privileged over others.”
Báez hopes the world she creates will challenge audiences to think about the past in a new way.
“I hope people walk in with a generous state of mind,” says Báez. “I want to seduce the viewer so they can engage with something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Until we face history, until we collectively name the problem of who matters and who doesn’t, we can’t move forward and rewrite it.”
Firelei Báez: Bloodlines is organized by Pérez Art Museum Miami Assistant Curator María Elena Ortiz. The Pittsburgh presentation is coordinated by Jessica Beck, The Warhol’s associate curator of art. Support for the Pittsburgh presentation is generously provided by Karen and Jim Johnson, Vivian and Bill Benter, Michele Fabrizi, and Kiya Tomlin. Firelei Báez: Bloodlines and its presentation at the Pérez Art Museum Miami was made possible by BNY Mellon with additional support from Chloé.
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