“How do you represent a body without a person being present?” said Firelei Báez. The question is one of the central themes of the New York-based artist’s exhibit “Immersion Into Compounded Time and the Paintings of Firelei Báez” happening at The Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Báez loads her large-scale paintings with symbols pulled from history and across cultures, particularly the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in America. But in most of her depictions, faces and definable people are largely absent, at least as images.
For example, in one room Báez presents several paintings of tignons, or headdresses, associated with the Tignon Laws, which dictated that black women had to cover their hair at all times.
“I wanted to think of these as stand-ins for the wearer,” she said. “They turned these symbols of oppression into symbols of power.”
Another recurring image found in these portraits is the azabache, a fist similar to the raised fist for black power, usually given as a charm to babies in the Caribbean to ward off evil presences.
“For me, it’s a melding ... that we’ve had these symbols of protection and resistance exist with us,” said Báez.
Báez speaks of acts of rebellion by free black women in Louisiana under the Spanish government.
“Without these moments of rebellion between men and women of the Caribbean, we wouldn’t have been able to buy the Louisiana Purchase,” she said. “Kansas City would be speaking French right now ... We in the present are deeply indebted to that history.”
Louisiana history also pops up in her portrait of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. A wall-sized map of the city is covered in a tattered blue tarp. “The blue tarp is something we know in the global South,” said Báez. “If there’s a hurricane, usually this is the shelter.”
But her work asks viewers to also consider the history of the colors. While the tarp and the patterns of red swirls on the white map recall the American flag, Báez looks at how those colors were produced and served as symbols of class.
“Indigo is a material that is so incredibly loaded,” she said. “There’s chemical processes you can use to get the perfect blue and the one that’s used here was adapted from techniques by West African enslaved people.”
Painted on the tarp itself are more symbols that were associated with the Black Panthers and later adopted for revolution in Nigeria.
“We usually think of lines of influence as traveling from Africa to the U.S. or Europe,” she said. “But we have been in conversation for more than 400 years, so it’s much more complicated.”
Found images, such as the map or the inventory of an old factory or the covers and title pages of books and records, are also used to recall the people they stand for. Throughout it all, Báez switches styles from details paintings to bleeding colors on printed imagery.
For Báez, it’s all about representing what she sees as the best of Americana.