“We think of history as human because our experience of time is very much predicated by memory, but the world around us has longer history,” says Firelei Báez, a New York-based artist who was born in 1981 in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, to a Dominican mother and a father of Haitian descent.
Her newly commissioned, immersive installation “To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Watershed in East Boston from July 3 to Sept. 6, 2021, depicts the ruins of Haiti’s Sans-Souci Palace. Built for the revolutionary leader and first Haitian king Henry Christophe between 1810 and 1813, it was devastated by an earthquake in 1842. Here Báez imagines the building as though its grand arches were revealed on the sea floor of East Boston.
The installation, constructed with assistance from ICA staff, gathers new resonances in the wake of the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise and a devastating Aug. 14 earthquake that killed thousands.
You can walk through the arches of the listing palace walls, which are studded with barnacles and stencils of feathers and stars drawn from West African indigo printing traditions (later used in the American South), flowers, people, hair picks, clenched fists, and Black Panther cats. Recordings of voices in multiple languages speak about Boston.
“Báez embeds Sans-Souci within the geological layers of Boston, where histories of revolution and independence are integral to the city’s identity,” according to the museum.
It’s all given an underwater cast with the ceiling of the Watershed’s vast warehouse space draped by blue tarps with cut out eyelets that evoke being underneath waves glistening with light.
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