Firelei Báez, the third artist invited to create a site-specific work for the ICA’s East Boston annex, was the first to use the space successfully, taking the history of the location as a pivotal point of reference. From 1920 until 1954, East Boston was the city’s trade hub, the site of a working shipyard, and the point of entry and home for many immigrants. Báez, who was born in the Dominican Republic to Dominican and Haitian parents, came to the U.S. in 1990. Best known for paintings exploring identity, race, and diaspora, her work has expanded in recent years to include large-scale sculptures and installations that address the politics of place and heritage—subjects rooted in her experience of the connections and faultlines linking the U.S., Europe, and the divided island of Hispaniola.
To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction (19°36’16.9”N 72°13’07.0”W, 42° 21’48.762” N 71°1’59.628” W) (2021), Báez’s largest installation to date, marked the most recent iteration in an ongoing body of work (earlier examples were created for the Berlin Biennale in 2018 and New York’s High Line in 2019) that employs painting, sculpture, and architecture to consider the physical and metaphorical constructions of three Sans-Soucis—Sanssouci (1745–47), the Rococo pleasure palace built by Frederick the Great on the outskirts of Berlin; Haiti’s Sans-Souci palace (1810–13), built for the despotic King Henri I and reduced to ruins by an earthquake in 1842; and Jean-Baptiste Sans-Souci, a prominent figure in the Haitian Revolution, who was betrayed and killed by his rival Henri Cristophe (later Henri I) in 1803, shortly before independence was won from France and slavery abolished.
At the Watershed, Báez presented a dream-like vision of Sans-Souci’s ruins as though transported to East Boston and revealed by a receding sea. At the entrance, a vast mural of waves painted over an antique map of Boston Harbor propelled viewers—led by Báez’s version of a beautifully plumed and untamed Ciguapa—into a scene that seemed to rise from deep within the cavernous space. The inclusion of a reinterpreted mythical creature from Dominican folklore set the tone for the historical reimagining that followed—an enormous, tilting wall of crumbling arches emerging from a blue curtain that wrapped the walls of the space. Walking through the arches, one could hear sounds of the ocean, along with recollections about migration and the importance of home whispered by Boston residents.
The immersive experience of To breathe full and free called to mind the writings of Stephen Weil and Stephen Greenblatt, who addressed the concepts of “resonance” and “wonder” in museum exhibitions. Resonance refers to the “power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand.” Wonder, by contrast, means “the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” In Báez’s fantasy of place—the elision of the longitudinal coordinates of the ruin in Haiti and the exhibition site—she achieved both resonance and wonder, offering an amazing visual experience while promoting understanding of the Caribbean and its complex history.
Once past the “aura” of the initial, wondrous sensation, viewers willing to take the time to examine the barnacle-encrusted walls discovered the work’s deeper dimensions. The richly layered surfaces were alive with imagery drawn from regional myths, science fiction, and fantasy, combined with lavish calligraphic and African textile patterns, depictions of animal and plant life native to Africa and the Caribbean, and symbols of healing and resistance. Testimony to Báez’s strength as a painter, this complex imagery also chronicled the depth of her interests, from anthropology and natural history to Black female subjectivity and power.
In To breathe full and free, as in all of the Sans-Souci works, Báez created what she calls a “third space of refuge,” a space where fictional alternative universes are imagined. The Boston version of that third space resonated strongly with the events and legacies of very different narratives of revolution and independence. Reworking visual references from the past, drawing new connections, and rebuilding ruins, Báez brings to light lost and unrealized histories while envisioning new possibilities for the future.