Structures that look like they belong in Atlantis practically eclipse the ceiling inside a cavernous space in East Boston.
In May, the renowned artist Firelei Báez worked alongside assistants who used brushes and rollers to paint high walls in different shades of blue.
They looked as if they had just risen from the depths of the sea. This is Báez’s largest sculpture to date, and it’s here, inside the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Watershed in East Boston, that she decided to embed this replica of a Haitian palace in ruins to interrogate the complicated history of the color indigo.
“What we have at the Watershed is a monumental structure inspired by a building in northern Haiti. It was [the Palace of Sans-Souci] built by Henri Christophe, the first northern kingdom of Haiti,” she said walking through the space.
She couples migration with revolution, the role it plays in Boston’s history as it did in Haiti’s, where enslaved people freed themselves from French colonial rule. Independence followed as did long standing tension predicated on ethnic difference and political upheaval, which, most recently, culminated with the assassination of the Haitian president. Here, in the installation, histories are woven together.
“If this can help you really see how you are part of a larger picture; that would be the best thing that could come out of this for me,” Báez said. “Not necessarily a beginning or end, but really seeing how you're in a continuum with many other spaces and histories.”
Overhead, folds of blue fabric drape across the massive gallery. Thousands of hand-cut holes allow light to stream through and dance on the back wall. The space is immersed in indigo and you feel as though you’re inside Van Gogh’s Starry Night. As we look around, Báez reminds me of why this material seems so familiar, what it has represented across the Caribbean.
“The blue tarp was always a constant,” she said. “It either meant shelter or disaster and many times both. So after a hurricane, you'd cover your roof that might have blown partially away.”
This shade of blue has multiple meanings to Báez. It represents the island where she grew up at the cross-section of two cultures with a Dominican mother and a father of Haitian descent. It’s a pair of washed blue jeans next to the phrase “true blue American.” It’s the place where the ocean meets the sky.
It’s the color Nina Simone talks about in her rendition of the jazz classic, “Mood Indigo,” where she sings, “You ain't never been blue, till you've had that mood indigo.” Generations of people were enslaved to produce the cotton that fueled much of the world’s economy in the 18th century. They would dye it indigo using a particular technique from West Africa.
“That's such a simple material and such a beautiful color it can have a very fraught and very brilliant history,” she said. “Because if you think of the science of it, the figuring out how this one particular plant that was mastered in a different geography in West Africa, was there, a symbol of maybe status. You could exchange that material for different goods and at certain points you could exchange bodies for a bolt of this cotton dyed in indigo blue.”
Her exhibit is complemented by Stephen Hamilton’s "Indigo," which is seen at the far end of the gallery. Hamilton’s work is presented in conversation with Báez's work. Hamilton carved, painted, dyed, and created the African textiles that hang on the walls.
“I'm always open to having conversations about the work with a lot of people, but I'm very clear that my work is for black people,” he said. “That's the audience that I'm thinking about when I'm making the work."
Amid the textiles, one painting depicts three black women and is called, ”Owners of the Earth.” It speaks to the need to nurture and feminine power.
“I'm very much tied to the tradition of making and those ways that is something for me is an act of reclamation,” he said. “Like me working at a loom...that act of building and weaving is an act of reclamation.”
Returning to Báez's work, and moving back in and under archways, you hear voices, floating around you. They begin as you pass the structures, triggered by motion sensors, telling you stories. Several people start talking in different languages about their lived experiences as immigrants, about what it means to find home and family. It keeps visitors engaged, in the moment hearing a stranger talk about their life.
“Just thinking of all the people who come now and who've been coming throughout the centuries, who had to make that choice or for whom it wasn't even a choice,” she said. “They couldn't stay home.”
To embed this replica of a palace in ruins, in a working Boston shipyard where immigrants live plays with the concept of time.
“And so that when you traverse space,” she said. “You have that whisper in your ear that reminds you of all the different choices that we made to be in the present.”
She conjures histories through these crumbling structures, reminders of the past in conversation with the present, a space of inquiry one can wander through, aglow in indigo.
The art installation by Firelei Báez is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Watershed gallery until September 6.
This segment aired on July 9, 2021.