Firelei Báez (b. 1981, Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic) received a B.F.A. from The Cooper Union's School of Art, participated in The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and received an M.F.A. from Hunter College. She has held residencies at The Headlands, The Fine Arts Work Center, The Lower East Side Print Shop, and The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace. Her work has been exhibited at the New Museum, The Perez Art Museum of Miami, The Provincetown Association and Art Museum and The Studio Museum in Harlem. She was a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Award as well as the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Award in Painting.
The work of the New York–based painter Firelei Báez (b. 1981) is a captivating narrative, presenting familial and diasporic histories that speak to her experience growing up in the United States with Dominican and Haitian parents. Painting with gouache and ink on paper—a reflection of her printmaking background—Báez generates bold images of full-figured women with thick hips who carry more than physical weight on their person: they are adorned, seemingly collaged, with striking patterns, whether multicolored floral (inspired by British colonial gowns) or black-and-white graphic (derived from drapery). They flirt with myth, fable, and fantasy to urge the viewer to question and investigate what story is being told with each image. Báez challenges us to think not only about the way Western societies have been conditioned to understand physical beauty but to consider the aesthetics of adornment, gesture, and movement and the ways texture can give life to a painting. Her work is steeped in history—addressing migration, colonialism, slavery, and the traditional gendering of the Caribbean landscape as female—and aspects of it respond to the late author and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s theory of the “poetics of relation,” based in a transformative mode of history that is capable of enunciating and making concrete a French Caribbean reality with a self-defined past and future. For Prospect.3 she has produced 3 new works on paper that speak to the tignon, a type of headscarf, a large piece of material tied or wrapped around the head to form a kind of turban that somewhat resembles the West African gélé. It was worn by Creole women in Louisiana beginning in the Spanish colonial period, and continuing to a lesser extent to the present day.
This headdress was the result of sumptuary laws passed in 1785 under the administration of Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró. Called the tignon laws, they prescribed and enforced appropriate public dress for female gens de couleur in colonial society. At this time in Louisiana history, women of color vied with white women in beauty, dress and manners. Many of them had become the placées (openly kept mistresses and second families) of white, French, and Spanish Creole men. To maintain class distinctions, Governor Miró decreed that women of color and black women, slave or free, should cover their hair and heads with a knotted headdress and refrain from "excessive attention to dress". But the women who were targets of this decree were inventive and imaginative. They decorated tignons with their jewels and ribbons, and used the finest available materials to wrap their hair.