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.