Patchworks of brilliant periwinkle, coral, cyan, canary yellow, and papaya orange-red tiles make up the stalks beneath teal, turquoise, and pistachio leaves. Amidst them, a hair pick of charcoals, mochas, and ash grays with a handle resembling a fist stands poised in a leafy base. The intricate design by Firelei Báez resides not with her artworks at the Studio Museum of Harlem or MoMA, but in Washington Heights’ 163rd street subway. It’s one segment of Báez’s proposal commissioned by MTA Arts & Design for the station’s redesign. According to director Sandra Bloodworth, the organization, “constantly striving to reflect New York and all that it is,” curates sundry public art for the diverse city’s bustling hubs.
“I wanted it to be a very-location specific conversation,” Báez says over video from the Netherlands’ Witte de With in the midst of installing a solo-exhibition. “It’s an area that has historically, or at least within the last 80 years, has been considered Dominican.”
Home to various waves of immigration, Washington Heights has ushered in Irish, Greek, and Jewish immigrants since 1906 with the building of the 157th street subway and accompanying tenements. During World War II, large influxes of Jews escaping Nazi Germany followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans fleeing Castro sought refuge. After the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1960s, thousands of Dominicans fled to the Heights. While some remnants of previous epochs remain, the area became predominantly Dominican. However, “it’s a population in that neighborhood that is in flux,” Báez says. “Now that the profile of the space is changing,” hoards of people have begun moving back or anew, touting it as the new Williamsburg.
In response, Báez includes a variety of flora specific to the Northeast to New York and to the Caribbean, from passion fruit to honeysuckle, having them merge together. “So that space, the station, could be this — hopefully — bridge,” she conveys, “between these changes, but also a point of healing for the people who are being displaced, and hopefully a way of re-centering and re-claiming what could potentially be lost.”
Born in Santiago de los Caballeros to a Dominican mother and father of Haitian descent, Báez weaves many facets of Dominican heritage into her murals. She includes iconography from azabache bracelets (a protective charm worn by newborns in Latin America) to ciguapas (female figures of Dominican folklore) to plantains — a reference to the commonly-used denomination for Dominicans: plataneros. “Dominicans are known as plataneros,” Báez says, “it can either be crass or very pride-filled like ‘Yes, we’re plataneros!’”Yet, she explains, ‘greater plantains’ (“a weed” with medicinal qualities) can ironically be traced back to the arrival of European settlers. Native Americans even called them “White Man’s Foot.”
“There are cycles of migration that are not recent,” Báez adds, “not tied to a specific economy, even though we’re used to thinking of it that way.” She’s also referring to Washington Height’s little-known first non-Native resident. Dominican sailor-turned-merchant of African ancestry, Juan Rodríguez arrived in 1613, forging trade relations with Native Americans 12 years prior to Dutch arrival.
“So the iconography, for me, was a way to point to that, to maybe break down presumptions about man and nature and migration and privilege,” she explains. Swirls of patterned plants: ‘broadleaf plantains,’ abstracted honeysuckle flowers, and ‘true plantain’ trees interwoven with red azabaches, Black Power fists, and picks surround a saffron ‘Uptown’ sign.
“I wanted it to reflect more of like a Caribbean light,” Báez recounts, “this very strong contrast versus something modulated.” The vibrant color palette rife with fiery reds, oranges, and crimsons illustrates a figure morphing into contiguous foliage.
The ciguapa’s ambiguous nature, to Báez, represents an escape from society’s categorizations and constraints. “In romance language, the female is usually a passive thing, it has to be activated,” she asserts, drawing parallels to 19th century paintings’ ideal lover-in-wait or landscapes requiring cultivation and manipulation.
“This folkloric being kind of slips outside of all of that.” With “traceless” backward legs and lustrous hair-covered bodies (harkening back to meticulously-sculpted Mary Magdalenes), “she’s this chimera,” Báez muses. “This badass that gets to be anything” from a monstrous devil to an extraordinarily beauty, yet “able to be all those selves and still be powerful and have a potential to change [her] environment.”
Other interfacing symbols include the azabache (or figa in Brazil), comprised of gestures distinct from but similar to the Black Power fist. The story passed down to Báez references the lineage of the charm’s gesture “as one of the ways of subverterting dehumanizing breeding practices” implemented by overseers during slavery in Cuba, perhaps suggesting “different lineages to Black Independence Movements that are parallel.”
Yet, “a lot of time, it’s information that people are not maybe familiar with and that can be off-putting or can make you feel excluded,” Báez discloses. “So I wanted the work to be seductive,” interspersing her figurative and abstract practice with layers of meaning.
“I always want it to have a bit of poetry” she notes, “a point where the viewer is creating with me.” Her imagery acts as a “visual roadmap, and according [to] the viewers generosity, they can go in with me.”
“What’s beautiful is that different audiences will have such different responses to it,” she says. For Dominicans, Báez elucidates, “it makes people rethink the social structure,” going from cautionary tales to what’s potentially possible. “In diaspora, we’re sometimes taught we’re almost crazy because we don’t fit into the cultural norm,” Báez says. Her depictions aim to dismantle “types” as society dictates them.
They can also inform cross-cultural dialogue. “Women coming from other cultures,” reporting Ghanaian folktales or European witch fables, will say, “‘That’s really powerful. We have something similar to this in my culture.’”
Although invoking similar themes, Báez’s subterranean scenes juxtapose her more esoteric, coded personal work. “Because it was a public work, I wanted a certain level of transparency,” she expresses, for long-time residents to be able to say “‘this is me’ or ‘this is something that I recognize as my own,’ and then ‘how is it functioning in the station?’”
But mostly, Báez says, “I wanted to Dominicans to just revel in it.”