Firelei Báez Brings an Afrofuturist Empire in the Atlantic to the MCA Chicago

In another world, within the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean, is Drexciya, a civilization that would rival the lost city of Atlantis. It’s populated by peaceful amphibian people, the descendants of pregnant African women thrown overboard from slave ships to drown during the Middle Passage. Rather than succumb to death, the women were adopted by the water and their babies were born swimming.

Drexciya was introduced in 1992 by the Detroit Afrofuturist techno duo of the same name. (Its members, James Stinson and Gerald Donald, were enigmas in the electronic scene.) In the two decades since, artists have drawn inspiration from the myth and ultimately remixed it, embodying its alternative narrative in song, literature, and visual art.

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In its latest interpretation, artist Firelei Báez invites viewers to wade into the waves with her. Báez has re-created her painting Untitled (Drexciya), from 2020, at monumental scale to fit the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s two-story atrium. Here, Baez has masterfully expanded her early work’s vision. The sea has been abstracted to resemble a primordial cosmos where celestial bodies—a female form is only just discernible—ebb in the current.

Báez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and is now based in New York, has a keen understanding of why people tell stories, and what special purpose they serve for traumatized communities. In her canvases, allegory and history meet to make modern myths, where life more easily grants victorious endings.

To learn more about her MCA Chicago commission, ARTnews interviewed Báez by email.

ARTnews: What was the process like painting the first Drexciya?

Firelei Báez: Paintings like the first Drexciya are made by pouring large quantities of paint over a flat surface. I began the painting with two abstracted figures, caught between a dance and a struggle, like those in Capoeira, which was developed as a veiled martial art for self-defense by enslaved peoples in Brazil. Every one of the subsequent 30 layers of paint I poured was an attempt at tapping into the past and adapting to the changes brought on by my new studio in the Bronx.

What was the experience of reimagining this work on a large scale like?

Immersion is very important to my work. The ability to work on a large scale like this creates an opportunity for the viewer to feel fully submerged in the world of the painting. Almost like a slippage between two realms.

What drew you to the world of Drexciya?

Much of my work contains oceanic imagery as a means of reconsidering the broader history of the Black diaspora and the Middle Passage. This is particularly resonant for me when placed in relation to [Édouard] Glissant’s theory of the ocean as a connector and a repository of physical memory. The Drexciyan myth, for which the painting is named, was developed in the 1990s by Drexciya, a Detroit-based electronic music duo. The myth posits the existence of an underwater nation populated by a new generation of water-breathing humans; the unborn children of pregnant African women who were thrown off of slave ships and have adapted to breathe fluid within their mothers’ wombs. To me, critical fabulation, or storytelling as a means of addressing critical omissions within the archive, is an essential part of the work I do. The world of Drexciya is very much a part of that narrative.

Ancient myths provided explanations for misunderstood parts of the present. For example, Greek mythology proposed that the sun rose each day because a chariot pulled it across the sky. But futurism remixes what we already know. What do you think drives that desire to propose alternative timelines?

Again, I think this circles back to the omissions in the archive and the limitations of predominant historical narratives surrounding the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage. As you note, mythology often contains origin stories, whether they be for natural phenomena or the origin of a nation. For those who were displaced through slavery and colonialism, much of that has been violently erased. Mythology, like the Drexciya myth, which is also associated with Afro-futurism, holds space for both a fantastical remixing of the past but also hope for the future.

When I look at the painting, I see a human form swimming with the currents, nearly out of sight. Is there anything you hope the viewer will find in Drexciya, or is it a Rorschach test of sorts?

There are actually several figures immersed within the composition, so it is a Rorschach in a sense. I’m interested in the long gaze and for the work to reveal itself the more you look at it; ultimately becoming something we create together. My hope is that viewers will join me in envisioning the limitless-ness of Black life, joy, and genius and through the Drexciya myth access new ways of reconnecting and reckoning with the massacre that was the Middle Passage. A “re-membering,” if you will, that cements the irrefutable fact of Black futurity.


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