Sans-Souci Palace in Milot, Haiti

The Firelei Báez art installation in the Watershed is bringing the Caribbean to Boston.

In 2018, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston opened the Watershed, a space for large-scale installation art set into the industrial maritime setting of the East Boston shipyard. The building that houses it was once a copper and sheet metal factory that turned ore brought in by ship into industrial products.

Now it hosts a truly monumental sculpture. A fantastical version of San-Souci, the palace built by a former slave in Haiti in 1813 and destroyed by an earthquake in 1842. Its ruins still stand on a clear hilltop above Milot.

The San-Souci of Firelei Báez is ghostly in stenciled indigo under the shimmering waves of a silk canopy and crusted with much-larger-than-life sea life. It juts from the floor at a dramatic angle, calling to mind a ship heeling in the wind, or as if the palace is erupting from the seabed. Or sinking into it. The light is watery and dappled, like the bottom of a shallow sea.

Báez, whose family comes from Haiti, kept the history of East Boston Harbor in her mind as she built her installation – The Boston Tea Party, the port’s history of trade and slavery, the U.S. Immigration Station where quarantined or undocumented immigrants were held until the 1950s.

“It’s such a palimpsest,” Báez said, overlooking the downtown Boston skyline. “Thinking of centuries of development that have happened here — what was negotiated for that to happen, what was given and what was taken?”

Alongside the fantastical San-Souci (“without a care”), Báez also painted a mural deeply steeped in her Haitian roots, of a surging ocean and a mythical creature, a ciguapa, striding the waves. A ciguapa is a beautiful woman who lures men away, like a mountain-dwelling siren. Ciguapas, usually dressed in leaves, flowers, and fruits, are a common feature of her art.

Audio is also integrated into Báez’s installation – the recorded memories of immigrants to Boston, overlaid with sea sounds.

Image: Shutterstock