Firelei Báez, How to slip out of your body quietly, 2018
The following is part of a cluster on the Futurities of Latinx Speculative Fictions. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.
organic stilettos protruding like anticipating bulbous roots, angled out sharply, weighing the ends of decidedly leg-like appendages under piled mounds of organic matter
plush uneven or level terrain
brownblack furhair twisted in braids, wrapped in coils, growing moss-like onto tree trunks, plant soil, reaching up, out
alive in the wind occasioned by their movement
—a haptic richness, these are ciguapas as imagined by Dominican-born artist Firelei Báez.
In Firelei Báez’s longstanding Ciguapa series (2005-2015) as well as across her oeuvre, this figure from Dominican folklore appears in larger-than-life canvasses (a singular force of femme expression), miniscule in multi-part installation vignettes (deploying performative gesture), and most recently a mosaic composite transforming a subway platform in NYC’s Dominican stronghold, Washington Heights. She is the product of the artist’s embrace of the usually maligned “Lilith-like wild women from the forest,” draped with hair to their backwards pointing feet, who filled the stories of her childhood—warnings to avoid too much “wildness,” “nature,” and independence (Báez and Truong, 2018). Paired with Báez’s concern over institutions that buttress and contribute to projects of empire—from the gallery to the library—in this figure Báez gives us a mode to grapple with what I understand as technologies of race making and their relationship to land and living organisms as central to the questions compelled by minoritation speculative arts.
Scholarly accounts of the origins of the ciguapa point to her quotidian association with Taino culture. Literary theorist Emilia Durán-Almarza, for example, writes: “even though the origins of this myth are uncertain […] in popular culture, [ciguapas] have been attributed to the indigenous Taino cosmogony” (142). Noting the lack of “references to these creatures either in any of the chronicles written by the Spanish colonizers or in the pre-Columbian cave paintings found in the island,” she concurs with ethnologist Manuel Mora Serrano who “considers Ciguapas to be a truly ‘national legend,’ shaped over the course of the Trujillo years as part of the nation-building project” (142, footnote 10). Dominican studies scholars have made much of the galvanization of the ciguapa into the national imagination through the novel La ciguapa (1866) by Franciso Javier Angulo Guridi, who is considered a founding father of indigenism in the Dominican Republic.1 His account narrates the ciguapa as follows:
“… its muscles and extremities exist in perfect harmony with one another; it has a marvelously beautiful face and movements full of such agility, spontaneity, and grace that they captivate the attention of all who see it. It has the golden skin of the authentic Indian, black almond-shaped eyes, soft lustrous, and abundant hair that on females falls down their gorgeous backs all the way to the knees…It has no language other than howling, and it runs like a hare through the mountains, or leaps like a bird among the trees’ branches as soon as it comes across a being from a different race” (Cadelario 2016, 105).
Underscoring “authentic Indian” characteristics alongside those that mark her on the perimeters of humanity, “howling” without language, Angulo Guridi’s ciguapa comes to encapsulate the deployment of indigeniety as a simultaneously anti-indigenous and anti-black vehicle within nation building projects. As such she “conforms,” as Durán-Almarza tells us, “to the fictive national ethnicity orchestrated by Trujillo, which revolved around an ideal racial and cultural mestizaje between the Taino natives and the white Spanish colonizers,” but which relegated “authentic Indians” to the wilds in its aspirational Europeanization (142). A fixture of Dominican discourse through whom national racial identity is imagined and gendered comportment and reproductive functions conveyed, the ciguapa has become a figure through whom to imagine future aims for the present by crafting an originary past, coalescing ideological projects of self and nation.
In the expressive culture of the Dominican diaspora the ciguapa continues the symbolic work of elaborating dominicanidad.2 In her children’s book, The Secret Footprints, for example, renowned author, Julia Alvarez, scripts the ciguapa in nostalgic remembrance of her island and its beauty, while poet, Josefina Báez, offers a ciguapa through whom to reflect on diasporic transformation where, away from her island, the synechdochic ciguapa “can become a saint or forget [her] divinity” (1039).3 As activated by Firelei Báez, the ciguapa facilitates an exploration of colonial technologies of race-making and Afrodiasporic relationality against the nationalist mestizaje she was crafted to support. In her fertile, field-forwarding essay on Chicanafuturism, Catherine Ramírez narrates her struggle against the “androcentric and overwhelming whiteness” of science fiction as a genre (2008, 185). Against the “messianic white [boys]” so prevalent in the genre, Ramírez engages and borrows from Afrofuturism to define Chicanafuturism, here and in ensuing essays, as “…Chicano cultural production that attends to cultural transformations resulting from new and everyday technologies (including their detritus); that excavates, creates, and alters narratives of identity, technology, and the future; that interrogates the promises of science and technology; and that redefines humanism and the human…[offering] an ontological and epistemological alternative to that of the Enlightenment (or rational) subject” (Ramírez 2015, ix ; Ramírez 2004, 78).4 In her own defining essay, Alondra Nelson tells us, Afrofuturism “[reflects] African diasporic experience and at the same time [attends] to the transformations that are the by-product of new media and information technology” (9).
In a reflective contemporary augmentation of the Afrofuturist project they dub Afrofuturism 2.0, Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones note Afrofuturism 2.0 offers, among other things, “counter histories” via hacking “database logic” and “cultural analytics,” and “posthuman possibility” indicative of “Diasporic technocultural ‘Pan-African’ movement” with “regional difference” (x). Unleashing a counter history, mining several databases, virtual and material, to reveal post/past/other-human possibility, Báez’s ciguapas move against nationalist circumscription, both Dominicanist and Chicanx, to explore convergent genealogies and strengthen connections between minoritarian speculative projects, performing a suture between and an augmentation of both. Further, relying on a manipulation and reorientation of chronological conceptions of time, Báez’s ciguapas shift future-oriented hermeneutics of the speculative arts, as well as the focus on machinery over discursive technologies even while making the most out of the “[by-products] of new media.” Inscribing her ciguapa in the Afrofuturist pantheon, narrating her genealogic symbology as much through Octavia Butler as Junot Diaz (Báez and Hernandez 2018), Báez (along with other works in this cluster) reaches beyond a Chicanx focus that tends to structure speculative arts projects in Latinx studies.5 Her ciguapas even insist on a broadening of the dominant boundaries of Latinidad, suturing work across conventionally siloed identitarian epistemes. In doing so she enacts what curators Tatiana Flores and Michelle A. Stephens have termed an archipelagic model that, “[upsets] the accepted geographic and conceptual boundaries of Latin America” through “a logic of analogy” which encourage “a recognition of unexpected mirrorings and inevitable unities across Caribbean spaces and bodies” (21-22). For Báez, this extends across the African diaspora and its revolutions.
Most often rendered as an amalgam of life as activated landmass with the potential to significantly alter terrestrial environments, Báez’s ciguapas are also noteworthy for their movement across temporal frames. In staging her ciguapas, both big and across small composite vignettes, Báez explains, “it’s usually about breaking time, so that, that’s the first dissonance…So you’re creating something that first takes you out of time, and that involves your body. This is usually the reason I make things at a large scale, so that your body is slowly immersed, and then you’re experiencing this as an object before you’re conceptualizing it as a painting.”6 Báez elaborates a performative pull on the spectator that both challenges the placid consumption of her work and simultaneously alters those narratives we now call history. The very form of her work is described as an immersive experience to transport spectators across and beyond time frames. Art historian Kency Cornejo has argued, “…if science fiction as a genre explores the relationship between technology, time, and society, one cannot ignore the role of Western scientific technologies in the modern/colonial world” (23). Further contention with these early technologies is the only means to altering their legacies.7 Immersed in this way, capable of traversing time, Báez’s ciguapas offer us a disorienting trail through their often asymmetrically heeled, backward pointing feet, in a speculative journey to directly address technologies for ordering the world, constructing the human through subordinating hierarchies.
Dwelling in the ambivalence generated by the ciguapa, between desire and repulsion generated by the freedom that rendered the ciguapa emblematic of what to avoid so as to properly embody femininity, Báez mines the by-products of new media in embrace of the wilds. “I was looking at contemporary video in the same way that you would consume, let’s say, an old manuscript,” she tells us about the way she sources the figures for her ciguapas. Across YouTube and sites like dailymotion, Báez sought out “wildings,” which she explains as “these really crazy massive fights that happen all around the world” of women in competitive, alluring and violent spectacles.8 These join figures modeled after Katrina refugees superimposed onto archival detritus, deaccessioned books, in her Man without a Country (aka anthropophagist wading in the Artibonite River) (2014–15).
Such iconic melding creates visual connections between minoritized subjects surviving existentially competitive spectacles of the Anthropocene, rendered in the iconography of the ciguapa. But in these ciguapas Báez seeks not just to reflect on racialized embodiment, but “ideas around the body. Or ideas around what forms how we treat land and body.”9 This is especially the case when rendered against an empty white background, a literal invitation to fill the visualscape with ideas about land and body given the amalgam form the ciguapas take—a mode of rendering meant to reference taxonomic representations of flora and fauna, a system, she tells us “first developed as a way for humans to ‘factually’ tally the living beings and plants around them; but instead allowed for horrible things to be done to people and nature outside of Europe.”
Elsewhere I have written about Báez’s deployment of the ciguapa in institutional critique of archives, libraries, museums, and galleries—the very systems that sustain the preservation, exhibition, and circulation of art.10 To do so, she ties these institutions to colonial enterprises for ordering “new worlds,” taking on for example, Carl Linnaeus, father of modern taxonomy. Of her Ciguapa Habilis (after Carl Linnaeus) (2010), I wrote, “Báez presents an affront to systems of naming through which the world is hierarchized [using Linnaeus’s] system of binomial nomenclature to categorize the ciguapa in relation to the institutionally construed ‘human’” (17). Ultimately critiquing the construction of that very episteme established by the “horrible violence” Baez identifies, these systems wrought on flora and fauna, beyond the knowable Europe, the technologies that enforced this differentiation.
In her title Báez mimics the habit of naming through relation, claims connection to the earliest known organism with whom we share genus for her ciguapa, but also creates a taxonomic split, one that allows us to imagine her as linked to other organisms who, like her, defy the knowable direction of their movement and time and may still linger with us now and into the future. In “[defying] the organizational system through which the wilds became ordered, arrayed, studied, and hierarchized” Báez also presents modes of being before, concurrent to, and beyond our current moment (Alvarado 2019, 18). Amalgam of folklore, media by-product, and archival disruption, the ciguapa blurs the timeframe of her being, of her destination, transporting us with her. She is a figure who insists on connectivity across time, across Hispaniola and the Caribbean, across the waterways and earthways that carry her kin beyond. She is a figure that insists on a suture between Afrofuturism and Latinxfuturism, minoritized speculative ideation writ large.
Báez’s ciguapas offers us an urgent reminder of connectivity as environmental desecrations make unavoidably clear a shared fate for organisms across the globe, a shared, if varied, experience of the violence of racial capitalism. Still, she allows us to imagine, despite such a contemporary reality, the limbs under us, under our plush or paved earth, might take us to an untraceable place where anticipating bulbs sprout sharp angled stilettos, rooting into the vacuous unknown.
- In addition to Durán-Almarza, see Dixa Ramírez, 10 and Candelario, 103. In a footnote, Candelario notes how Angulo Guridi may have imported the ciguapa from Cuba. She writes: “It is possible that Angulo Guridi imported the ciguapa from Cuba, where the Cuban folklorist Antonio Bachiller y Morales wrote about the ciguapa in 1848. La Ciguapa is also the name of a town in Cuba’s Oriente region, the locus of anticolonial and antislavery resistance and rebellion on the island. The towns name predates Bachiller y Morales’s writing, as is referenced in Mary Gardner Lowell’s 1831-32 travel narrative, New Year in Cuba (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003),” (ftnt 14, 103).
- In The Borders of Dominicanidad, Lorgia García-Peña defines dominicanidad as “a category that emerges out of the historical events that placed the Dominican Republic in a geographic and symbolic border between the United States and Haiti since its birth in 1844. Dominicanidad is thus inclusive of subjects as well as the dictions that produce them” (3).
- See Durán-Almarza, “Ciguapas in New York,” for a reading of this poem.
- Ramírez (2004) is clear on her indebtedness to Afrofuturism, borrowing “a broad definition of technology” and “critiques [of] theories of the liberal subject” (76, 77). She also outlines what she sees as some differences. “While Afrofuturism reconfigures subjectivity,” she writes, “some Afrofuturist texts—for example, the bulk of Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction—do not abandon altogether the promises of liberalism and humanism, of which human and civil rights are a part” (77). Additionally, “while Afrofuturism reflects diasporic experience, Chicanafuturism articulates colonial and postcolonial histories” (78). See also Ramírez (2015) and (2017).
- The exhibition Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas and its accompanying 2017 catalogue are notable exceptions.
- Firelei Báez with Hong-An Truong. “Art|In Conversation,” The Brooklyn Rail (November 2018), https://brooklynrail.org/2018/11/art/FIRELEI-BEZ-with-HNG-N-TRNG
- As Cornejo writes it, “A decolonial future, therefore, requires a decolonization of time and space, of yesterday and today” (23).
- Firelei Báez, “Lecture,” San Francisco Art Institute, March 22, 2016, https://vimeo.com/160402088
- Firelei Báez with Angie Cruz, “Firelei Báez on Generosity and Freedom in Art,” Aster(ix): A Journal of Literature, Art, Criticism (July 6, 2017), https://asterixjournal.com/firelei-baez/
- Leticia Alvarado, “Flora and Fauna Otherwise: Black and Brown Aesthetics of Relation in Firelei Báez and Wangechi Mutu.” Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture 1, no. 3 (July 2019): 8-24.