Peeling wallpaper and crumbling walls usually signify things in disarray. In Firelei Báez’ mural “To See Beyond Its Walls (and access the places that lie beyond),” the Kemper Museum’s latest commissioned atrium project, that’s the point. Báez’ portrait of a beautiful woman of color wearing a wrapped headdress is at first sight appealingly decorative. But the figure is actually painted on a reimagined interior of the 1813 Sans-Souci Palace in northern Haiti, and her head covering is a “tignon,” which she would have been forced to wear in Spanish colonial Louisiana as a marker of her African descent.
The shredded wallpaper suggests both decay and wounding. Look closer at the symbols and patterns in the fabric of the tignon. Images such as black power fists, black panthers and “azabaches,” stones carved into fists and worn in Latin American cultures as a protection from evil spirits, are included in the patterning.
The woman is beautiful, but her burnished skin in some places resembles that of a dragonfly, or some other kind of evanescent insect. She is primal, she is timeless, and she has managed to survive oppressive systems that one hopes are now decaying.
Báez, who is based in New York, was born in 1981 in the Dominican Republic. Her work is in demand right now: according to the arts news site “artsy,” earlier this fall at EXPO Chicago, San Francisco art dealer Wendi Norris sold five Báez works to private collectors and a corporate collection.
Erin Dziedzic, director of curatorial affairs at the Kemper, asked Báez to create a work for the museum after seeing her installation “Bloodlines” two years ago at the Perez Art Museum in Miami. The Miami work also referenced the Sans-Souci wallpaper with its floral imagery, which Báez mixed in with drawings of fists and hair picks.
“I saw something in her work that is both historical and engages the present, is grand in scale and also intimate and tactile, and deeply considers the trajectory of conflicted histories and current political contexts of Hispaniola and America,” Dziedzic says.
“Additionally,” she notes, “her work is beautiful.” The beauty found in Báez’ art, Dziedzic says, can draw us into her art, which can then lead us into important discussions about our geographic and social histories.
Western art history has traditionally treated textiles as a lower art form, at best. Feminist artists were the first to incorporate clothing and its patterns into their art, aware that fabrics are more than mere ornamentation. They are markers of identity, culture and forms of armor. Often, it was the only way women were allowed to express themselves. The decorative is a language all its own, and Báez’ installation shows us how powerful that can be.
Báez was given total control over her subject matter. Visitors to the museum were allowed to watch “To See Beyond Its Walls” while she constructed it, slowly and patiently. For this viewer, it was a hypnotic experience. Báez’ technical mastery draws us into the installation and makes us want to understand its core meanings.
“Firelei Báez: To See Beyond Its Walls (and access the places that lie beyond)” continues through June 2018 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.