Momentary shows immersive artwork by Firelei Báez

Momentary shows immersive artwork by Firelei Báez
April Wallace

Firelei Báez came to the United States as a 7-year-old, and Hurricane Andrew followed soon after.

Her sister, only a couple of years older, was alarmed that the family would be waiting out the storm in place. But Firelei was stoic in the face of chaos even as a small child. She felt like her duty through that time was to stay calm and then help where she could.

In the aftermath of the hurricane what she fixated on were the signature blue tarps, the sure sign of shelter in disaster. To her, they were beautiful. The light poked through in places.

Ruins, other spaces in transition and rebuilding are all themes in Báez’s largest sculptural installation to date, “To Breathe Full and Free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction,” soon to beon view now at her self-titled exhibit inthe Momentary until July 16, 2023.

“It’s in a sense a portal to whimsy and the senses, but through that, comfort … and access to harder aspects of lived reality” such as climate change and the transatlantic slave trade, Báez says. “Migrations happen because of (those things); they don’t act singularly. They’re all connected.”

The sculpture is large enough to walk through, and Báez hopes everyone will weave in and out of the archways. It reimagines the archeological ruins of the Sans-Souci Palace in Haiti as if it were emerging from the Atlantic Ocean and into the Momentary in galleries 1, 2 and the interior Tower space.

Each doorway has five audio tracks, so every time you move through it, it gets more complex. The soundtrack is folks’ personal stories of home and migration. Twenty -one narrators in total talk about various places and times, which helps transport the visitor to those places, too.

“You have to navigate it completely to get a sense of what it is,” Báez says. “You can’t see it all at once. It’s a watery cavern to climb and explore.”

An immersive mural and hanging tarps — the same bright royal blue of those of Firelei’s childhood — trigger the sense that you’re both underwater and under the starry night sky.

“To Breathe Full and Free” was first shown at the ICA Watershed in Boston. Being a government territory made it tricky to gain permissions for all Baez needed to do and made it an extra “loaded” work and more special with its intense focus of commenting on migration, Báez says.

The watershed’s mezzanine level is similar to the Momentary. Báez encourages viewers to see the work from a higher level so they don’t miss a thing.

Given its sheer size, this sculpture took a lot more manpower than the average project. It was an aspiration of architecture, after all, drawing up plans and needing a fabrication company to help execute them. It took many teams and given the location at the watershed, it also needed various governmental approvals like passing inspection by fire departments and building codes, making sure it was suited to ADA standards.

The idea for the massive work started when Báez visited northern Haiti and saw the ruins of the incredible palace with neo-classical archways.

Firelei was born in the Dominican Republic to her Dominican mother and father of Haitian descent. Having an upbringing of two cultures that had a longstanding history of tension based on ethnic differences is part of what drives her interest in the political side of place and heritage.

The sculpture’s intricately painted surfaces bear symbols of healing and resistance, its patterning drawn from West African indigo printing traditions and sea growths native to Caribbean waters.

Seeing the Haitian palace made Báez ruminate on royalty and the clear hierarchy and splicing that the space would have suggested, and clued her in to elements that echo in her own work: the color yellow to connect a monarch to the sun, the connections to nature, humanity and access to power.

“On the other hand, now the environmental shift is ‘Who has access to shelter?’” Báez says. “And how well can we navigate climate? That affects everyone, everywhere.”



Firelei Báez: ‘To Breathe Full and Free’

WHEN — Opening soon

WHERE— The Momentary, 507 SE E. St. in Bentonville

COST— Free; no ticket required


Categories: Galleries