Land-locked Kansas City might not have obvious connections with the Caribbean Sea. But in creating her new wall-sized installation at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, an artist based in New York – by way of Haiti and the Dominican Republic – found connections that run deep.
Firelei Báez's "To Access the Places that Lie Beyond" now covers a wall just inside the museum's south entrance. It's the first and last thing visitors will see, says the Kemper's curator, Erin Dziedzic, who commissioned the work for the Kemper’s second annual Atrium Project.
“It’s a way to enliven our atrium. It’s also a way to show audiences artist connections to Kansas City,” Dziedzic says.
Dziedzic was drawn to Báez’s vibrant colors, her use of tropical foliage and beautiful curvy women to create fragile, otherworldly scenes — and Báez's use of history.
“Her aspects of hybridizing different parts of her culture with mythology," Dziedzic says, "I found incredibly interesting.”
Dziedzic says Báez’s work has a personal and sensitive quality, and a real sense of beauty even when Baez is dealing with the more difficult aspects of African American and Latino history — such as addressing dynamics of skin tone and the texture of people’s hair.
These projects take time. Dziedzic first began talking with Báez about this project in February 2016. Báez came to Kansas City this past spring to check out the space, and spent the summer (while also working on exhibits for three other art museums) sketching and planning for her Kemper show.
“Every time I do an installation like the one at the Kemper, it’s usually specific to the history and the geography of that institution or the place where it’s located," says Báez. "So when the viewers come, in they'll be able to find silhouettes of Kansas City, of Kansas and Missouri and Louisiana. It’s a bit like a treasure hunt.”
Báez says she studies United States, Latin American and Caribbean histories that usually aren’t taught in schools. For the Kemper, she decided to create a huge portrait of a woman, her hair covered by a tignon — a scarf that looks like a turban. Surrounding the image of the woman’s head, patterns from her tignon cover the wall like peeling paint, a wall of tattered indigo.
It's a familiar color Báez says we might call “true blue” American.
“But along with that is the fact that it comes from a long history of the slave trade," she says. "True blue American and West African indigo are all the same thing.”
The Kemper’s installation tells the story of what happened to the natives of Louisiana — including free black women — after the Spaniards colonized their homeland in the late 1700s. The first thing one Spanish official did, she says, was outlaw free black women’s hair.
“He thought he could take away social standing from them by forcing them to wear a headscarf," Báez says. "And so these incredible women made these things that were supposed to be an object of oppression into a symbol of power. They made it beautiful to the point that it became the fashion in the Caribbean and Europe.”
Besides what she finds in historical archives, Báez is also inspired by Afrofuturism, and its cultural, political and aesthetic emphasis on strength. She has personal experience with this. When she was little, her mother moved to the United States and left her behind. Báez and her sisters were shuffled between family members in the Dominican Republic, going to a different school every year. But the women she lived with nurtured her artistic leanings.
“I was raised by generations of really badass women, from my great grandmother to my mom," Báez says. "They steer their own course in life, and it’s something they’ve taught me: No matter what circumstance, it’s always, 'Figure out what you want of the world and find a way to make that happen.'”
Now, images from her childhood show up with images from other cultures in her paintings and installations. She says she’s exploring ideas about the human body, gender and the landscape — and in Kansas City, how so many aspects of our culture found their way to a place she calls “loaded” with meaning.
Her first exposure to Kansas City was through music, she says, citing influential jazz musicians as well as Janelle Monáe.
“It’s a crossroads," she adds. "The Oregon trail started here – the last stop before the West. It's where a lot of things happened before they happened elsewhere, and in the Caribbean it happens in that same way. So it functions in many ways like how the Caribbean has functioned for global politics.”
That idea might not occur to most Kansas Citians, but after spending a week installing the work and talking to Kemper visitors, Báez says people have been enthusiastic about the connections she's made. After all, the image now on the Kemper's wall is one they recognize — from our history, and our present.
Firelei Báez, "To Access the Places that Lie Beyond," through June 24, 2018 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111; 816-753-5784.
KCUR contributor Vicky Diaz-Camacho has written for local and national publications, including Alt.Latino. Follow her on Twitter @vickyd_c.