First solo exhibition in Europe of works by Firelei BŠez opens in Denmark
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First solo exhibition in Europe of works by Firelei BŠez opens in Denmark
Firelei BŠez in her studio. Still image from 'I Consider Myself a Filter' Louisiana Channel, 2023

COPENHAGEN.- Trust Memory Over History at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is the Dominican-American artist Firelei BŠez’s (b. 1981) first solo exhibition in Europe. Monumental paintings and installations, showing poetry, pain and immense beauty, confront and address the language of power and the hegemony of the Western world. Old maps, architectural drawings and pages from books are the tangible and vital starting points for her paintings.

The force and energy that emanates from the work of Firelei BŠez is overwhelming. She paints powerful, poetic images on top of old diagrams, such as maps, book pages and blueprints, fluidly going back and forth between the realms of abstraction and figuration.

The world of BŠez’s art thrives on contradictions and ambiguities in which beauty is interwoven with violence, personal perspectives are mingled with grand historical narratives, and Caribbean mythology is blended with science fiction. Throughout her work, there is a powerful streak challenging preconceived ideas about history and identity.

In BŠez’s work, to start from the ‘beginning’ means to come face to face with history itself. For BŠez, the path to her studio leads through the archive. Her work is integrally tied to considerations of power and its relation to racialized and gendered constructs all while refusing to be defined by them. The archival documents that BŠez carefully selects as the anchors for her paintings and works on paper are conduits for reconsidering these complex histories, leaving room for bountiful, alternate counternarratives and a recalibration of popular assumptions about European and American dominance. These diagrams are almost co-creative in that they influence the substance of the paintings, interfacing with the temporality of the archival documents. Peeking through the layers of paint, they act as powerful reminders of the inescapable historical foundations of everything we make today.

BŠez’s oeuvre bears close ties with contemporary writers and artists who, in the absence of dependable historical records, turn to fiction as a means of constructing alternative narratives while challenging constructs of truth and fact as they are presented in the canonised historical narrative.

Motifs in the exhibition

Water: For many artists of the diaspora, the ocean in particular serves as a repository for the violence endured during the Middle Passage. However, in BŠez’s interpretation of water, the spotlight shifts towards a kind of rebirth and the beauty that emerges from even the most dire of circumstances. In BŠez’s imaginary, water comes to signify the presence of a purifying, revitalising, and transformative lifeforce.

Hair: BŠez’s use of straightened black hair fashioned into small buns is a recurring element that transcends both her figurative and abstract compositions. These buns serve as a reference point for her personal connection to her own hair and the cultural significance associated with hair.

Ciguapa: For BŠez, the Ciguapa – a mythological creature originating in Dominican folklore – holds a special connection to her childhood memories and is a recurring motif in her work. The figure of the Ciguapa is displayed in a constant state of transformation, defying the process of gendering, possessing both feminine and masculine attributes. It represents a fusion of human, animal, and plant characteristics, creating a hybrid being that adapts to its surroundings.

Femininity: In many of BŠez’s paintings, a feminine figure commands the spotlight, boldly occupying the central position within a map, akin to a performative declaration — creating centrality in both the literal and figurative senses. For the most part, they remain faceless, yet their skin becomes a canvas for vibrant and intricate colour patterns. Like BŠez’s other figures, they defy attempts to confine them within predetermined boundaries, be those gendered, sexual or racial.

Fruta Fina, Fruta EstraŮa (Lee Monument) (2022): This work by BŠez is in the Louisiana collection: The work’s Spanish title draws a connection between fruit both beautiful and strange. In 1939, the great American singer Billie Holiday (1915–1959) released the song ‘Strange Fruit’, which protested the lynching of Black Americans – and we see some truly strange fruit in BŠez’s composition: a profuse outgrowth of pink clusters from which bunches of hair and succulent grapes protrude. BŠez has painted her motif on top of the floor plan of a monument honouring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, a symbol of structural racism and slavery erected in Louisiana in the antebellum period. The title represents the juxtaposition between beauty and strangeness, and how the latter can create astounding interpretations of the former.

Louisiana’s engagement with American art only makes it all the more exciting to present Firelei BŠez’s first solo exhibition in Europe. The exhibition will then travel on to Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, which together with Louisiana is among the few European museums that have so far acquired the artist’s works for its collection.

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