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September 23, 2021

Firelei Báez on Femininity, Ethnicity and a Destabilization of Colonial Narratives

Firelei Báez (born in 1981), Untitled (Terra Nova), 2020, oil and acrylic paint, laser print on canvas, 261.1 x 336.1 x 4 cm. MMFA, purchase, W. Bruce C. Bailey Fête-champêtre Fund, Douglas Bensadoun Fund, Diana Billes Fund and Fund of the Women of Influence Circle. Photo Dan Bradica

Thanks to the incredible generosity of Douglas Bensadoun, W. Bruce C. Bailey, Diana Billes and the MMFA’s Women of Influence Circle, the Museum was able to acquire a major work by renowned Dominican artist Firelei Báez. Untitled (Terra Nova) will be the first work by this young artist to enter the collection of a public institution in Canada.
Mary Dailey Desmarais. Photo Stéphanie Badini

Mary-Dailey Desmarais

Chief curator
Jacqueline Atkin

Jacqueline Atkin

PhD Candidate in Art History

Born in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, Báez moved to Florida with her family at the age of eight. She carried out her artistic training in New York, receiving a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art and completing an MFA at Hunter College. She also studied at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Since her first monographic exhibition in 2012, the artist has shown her work at major venues across North America and Europe, including the 2017 Venice Biennale and the 2018 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. She is also the recipient of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2019) as well as the College Art Association Artist Award for Distinguished Body of Work (2018) and the Future Generation Art Prize (2017), among other awards. Although Báez is only 40 years old, her work has already entered the collections of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Pérez Art Museum Miami and The Studio Museum Harlem.

Firelei Báez. Photo Lia Clay

At the heart of Báez’s practice is an exploration of the relationship between diasporic experiences, mythical imagery and colonial histories. As she explains, her art engages with “the humour and fantasy involved in self-making within diasporic societies, which live with cultural ambiguities and use them to build psychological and even metaphysical defences against cultural invasions.”1 With this in mind, the artist’s aesthetic intervention aims to destabilize colonial narratives for both contemporary viewers and those whose histories were denied or erased in colonial discourse. As art historian Roxana Fabius has noted, Báez’s deployment of mythical narratives and figures “creates spaces of identification for the observer and revives or reintroduces into the historical memory the untold stories or intentionally lost stories of slavery, abuse and resistance of Afro-descendent women.”2

The ciguapa, mythical creature and feminine archetype

The mythical creature that figures most prominently in Báez’s work and at the centre of Untitled (Terra Nova) is the ciguapa, a shapeshifting female trickster thought to reside in the high mountains of the Dominican Republic. Feminine archetypes believed to possess transformative powers, ciguapas are creatures whose appearance may change depending on who encounters them.

The ciguapa was popularized in Dominican folklore by the writer Francisco Javier Angulo Guridi (1816-1884), whose novella La Ciguapa was published in 1866. The only constant features of these shapeshifters are their flowing hair, typically shown covering a nude body, and backwards legs.3 Sociologist and Professor of Latin American Latino/a studies Ginetta Candelario has elucidated that the ciguapa’s legs symbolize both resistance and the union of opposites in Dominican culture:

With backwards-pointing feet offering a built-in mechanism for misleading those who follow, pursue, or attempt to grasp her, the ciguapa signals that Dominican social facts are often two opposite things at once.4

As such, she argues, the mythical figure embodies “the simultaneously progressive and regressive sovereignty strategies and sentiments of a people whose ancestors were both colonizer and colonized, enslavers and enslaved, (im)migrants and native born.”5

Báez attributes her initial interest in the ciguapa to a desire to better represent the women she was close to during her formative years. For the artist, Western ideals of passive femininity “seemed like the antithesis of the dynamic, self-sufficient women I was raised and surrounded by.” In her series by the same name, she uses ornamentation, pattern and texture to articulate the individuality of each figure. Central to Báez’s exploration of the ciguapa is her rendering of their hair, which she frequently depicts as a cluster of organic masses that overwhelm and become synonymous with the creature’s body.

Firelei Báez (born in 1981), Untitled (Terra Nova) (detail)
Firelei Báez (born in 1981), Untitled (Terra Nova) (detail)
Firelei Báez (born in 1981), Untitled (Terra Nova) (detail)
Firelei Báez (born in 1981), Untitled (Terra Nova) (detail)

In Báez’s practice, the ciguapa is a potent symbolic tool by which to investigate both current and historical issues concerning womanhood, race and landscape.6 Untitled (Terra Nova) carries forward the artist’s sustained interest in the mythical figure and demonstrates her continued dedication to reclaiming historical objects. In this work, the ciguapa is shown crouching atop an engraved atlas map titled “Terra Nova” from 1541. The document, which describes America and the western coasts of Great Britain, Europe and Africa, includes various emblems of colonial ideologies and practices. While a Spanish flag sits atop Cuba, a Latin notation detailing Columbus’s “discovery” of Hispaniola rests below the Dominican Republic. Here, Báez disturbs the exploitative charting of the island by placing a ciguapa with knotted tendrils, leafy foliage and orchid petals at its centre.

The artist’s incorporation of palm imagery references a passage from a poem by 19th-century Cuban poet José Martí, which translates loosely as “the palms are like brides who await my return.” Báez has argued that Martí’s language, while romantic, is “also violent” as it denotes “the idea of a female body being lost in a landscape, needing to be activated.” By combining palm imagery with the ciguapa, who possesses the ability to resist oppressive conventions, the artist presents the female figure as remarkably self-sufficient and self-possessed.

Exploring issues of womanhood, race and the broader history of diasporic experience through paint, Untitled (Terra Nova) is a major addition to the Museum’s collection of international contemporary art and marks an important step in our efforts to diversify our collections and the dialogues they inspire. We are exceptionally grateful to the individuals who helped make this acquisition possible.

1 Cited in Andy Smith, “Firelei Báez’s Stirring, New Meditations on Femininity,” Hi-Fructose (December 15, 2017), https: //hifructose .com/2017/12/15/firelei-baezs-stirring-new-meditations-on-femininity/.

2 Roxana Fabius, “The Powerful Women of Firelei Báez,” Contemporary And (May 15, 2018), https: //www .contemporaryand .com/fr/magazines/the-powerful-women-of-firelei-baez/.

3 Emilia María Durán-Almarza, “Ciguapas in New York: Transcultural Ethnicity and Transracialization in Dominican American Performance,” Journal of American Studies vol. 46, No. 1 (February 2012), p. 142.

4 Ginetta E.B. Candelario, “La ciguapa y el ciguapeo: Dominican Myth, Metaphor, and Method,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, vol. 20, No. 3 (November 2016), p. 102.

5 Ibid.

6 Paul Laster, “Upcycling: 5 Artists Inventively Using Reclaimed Materials,” Art & Object (April 6, 2020), https: //www.artandobject .com/news/upcycling-5-artists-inventively-using-reclaimed-materials.

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