Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscripts Library Welcomes the Josefina Báez Papers, the Tenth in the Latino Arts and Activisms Collection

Artist Josefina Báez looking at the viewer, holding a lighted sphere.
A photograph from a collaboration with friend Italo-New Yorker photographer Giovanni Savino 2015. © Giovanni Savino 2015

Rare Book & Manuscripts Library’s Latino Arts and Activisms (LAAS) collection has acquired the papers of writer, performer, and theorist Josefina Báez. The LAAS collection seeks to acquire the papers and records of Latinos and Latino organizations in New York that may be of enduring significance as research resources for the city and the world.

“We couldn’t be happier to call the Library the home of the Josefina Báez archive,” said Courtney Chartier, Rare Book & Manuscripts Library director. “These materials are an important expansion of the Latino story as told in the archives and a fighting tribute to over a decade of advocacy for the Latino Arts and Activisms collection by its founding curator, Frances Negrón-Muntaner.”

Negrón-Muntaner, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, views the acquisition as a “watershed moment.” “It is impossible to tell the full story of twentieth and twenty-first-century Latinos in New York, global Black thought, and performance history without Báez, an innovator in method, form, and language,” says Negrón-Muntaner. “Her papers are also our tenth collection and the first of a Dominican and Afro-Latina artist. The Báez archive thus signals the growth of the Latino Arts and Activisms collection, its increasing diversity, and rising importance to researchers, students, artists, and community members.”

Báez was born in La Romana, Dominican Republic in 1960. In 1986, she founded the Latinarte/Ay Ombe Theatre in New York to nurture and develop her unique “Performance Autology” method, a practice of art as research that begins with gathering participants’ personal narratives at all phases of life, from birth to death. Performance Autology also involves physical training that orients the doer towards organicity, alertness, well-being, and “radical joy.”

Artist Josefina Báez, holding and looking down at two black and white photographs of her as a child.
A photograph from the name changing series “Tenses”; a collaboration with friend Italo-New Yorker photographer Giovanni Savino. © Giovanni Savino (2013 or 2014)

For Báez, depositing her archives at Columbia opens a novel channel for artistic engagement. “I am honored for the opportunity to share one of my most conscious choices, my creative process (and some of its results), with an interested audience. To experience this while in life, alive and living, grants me new possibilities for dialogue at the hands of every person who comes to consult the collection,” Báez said.

Báez’s migratory experience is the primary driving force behind her texts and performances. Through storytelling, theater, poetry, and dance, she examines the experiences of Dominicans living in a global setting. Among her works is
Dominicanish (2000), one of the most compelling explorations of Dominican immigrant life in the urban United States, explores the complexities of the Dominican-York identity through a non-linear language, tapping into unofficial stories and undocumented history. In the performance poem Comrade, Bliss Ain’t Playing (2008), Báez also explores the inner layers of a woman’s journey, from sound to silence and many of the contradictions and certainties in her path. Lastly, in
Levente no. Yolayorkdominicanyork (2011), a text utilizing a blend of Spanglish”/”Dominicanish,” Báez delves into the everyday experiences of female migrants who find themselves situated between the Dominican Republic and New York, redefining, embodying, and “running with it.”

“Báez is a child of the many sites where her artistic quest has taken her, including Cuba, New York City’s iconic subway system or its manifold Washington Heights neighborhood, and Andhra Pradesh, the southeastern state on the Indian subcontinent,” writes Dominican studies scholar Silvio Torres-Saillant, Dean’s Professor of the Humanities, Syracuse University. “On the stage just as on the page, in the classroom or in the lecture hall, Baez’s career has followed a trajectory of voracious absorption of worldviews, paradigms, techniques, art forms, and ‘creative expressions’ overall. Báez is the border-crossing artist par excellence.”

Rich in rare and notable materials, the collection offers multiple resources to engage with Báez’s artistic trajectory. Among them is the complete visual creative process of her first and only children’s book Why is My name Marysol? (2013). The archive also holds her photography, used as one of Báez’s many sources in her research process documenting local quotidian and special events such as the annual Dominican Day Parade in Manhattan, and activities organized and hosted by Latinarte/Ay Ombe Theatre, her students, and close collaborators. In addition, the archives comprise never-before-seen rehearsal footage, performance recordings of her key works, and unedited short performances of Báez onstage and off, along with original footage of Performance Autology laboratories structured as retreats held in New Zealand, India, Chile, United States, and Dominican Republic.

Although Báez continues to explore new directions, the collection confirms her already substantial legacy. “Báez’s work has been pivotal in the development of the field of Afro-Latina/o Studies, contributing to the creation of new aesthetic languages and conceptual tools for the critical exploration of the legacies of imperial and colonial regimes,” says scholar Liamar Durán Almarza of the University of Oviedo (Spain). “The transnational outlook of her creative practice and subject matter have allowed her to transcend local paradigms, forging an international network of collaborators, engaged readers and spectators in the Caribbean, Europe and the Latino/a Americas.”

A symposium on Báez’s work featuring readings, films, and conversation will be held at Columbia in late Spring and will be free and accessible to the public.

Jhensen Ortiz, Librarian at CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Archives and Library, and Frances Negrón-Muntaner contributed to this article.