Experience Movement and Sound Through Genesis Baez’s Photographs

Genesis Báez, a Brooklyn-based artist working with photography and video, produces work in Puerto Rico and its diaspora. Her work explores themes of movement, transference, imagination, and memory. The subject matter, be it a large vessel of water carried by two pairs of hands, or a bedroom lined with colored veils, places the viewer in dialogue with the scene at hand. Read on to learn more about the mind of this up and coming artist, her upbringing, and the intricacies of her roots reflected in her work.


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Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you originally from, and when did art first enter your life? 

I’m an artist living in Brooklyn, NY, and I make photographs and videos. I was born in Massachusetts, and grew up there and in Puerto Rico, where my family is from. I have spent my adult life living in various parts of the northeastern US. Moving a lot, and at times dividing my life between the Caribbean and New England, has influenced my practice. My current interests in imagination, perception, sensorial memory, and the multidimensionality of presence are all rooted in my diasporic experience. Many of my interests stem from considering how people make space, and relate to place and each other, in the aftermath of mass migration.

Art, but more broadly, creativity and ingenuity, have always been a part of my world, my survival, and how I connected to history. The stories shared by my elders, listening and dancing to music with neighbors, photographs carefully curated on the walls of relatives home’s, brilliantly sewn garments. There was little distinction between art and life. 

Before I was born, my late grandfather built my brother a conga drum from found materials. One day, I looked at the inside of the drum, held it up to the sun, and found that the head of the drum was made from an x-ray of my grandfather’s chest that glowed in the light. I’m moved by this kind of ingenuity, and by the potential in everything around us. Like my grandfather, I work with what is around me. 

My brother helped me sign up for my first photography class when I was 15. When I was 9, I started making pictures in Puerto Rico of everything around me so that I wouldn’t forget that part of my life when I went back to the US. Pictures were (are) portals. 


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Tell us about your creative process. What does a day of shooting look like? 

My process varies depending on what I’m making, but overall I work very intuitively. I make portraits, I photograph in spaces of personal significance or significance to my ideas, and I also construct scenes for the camera. I also make video works that engage with other people. My work has been made in Puerto Rico and various parts of the diaspora in the US, but it is not limited to a particular geography.

I also spend a lot of time listening, reflecting and digesting information without the camera.

When photographing people, the process begins with a sincere connection with a person. Sometimes they’re a family member or friend, and sometimes they’re a stranger. Recently (pre-pandemic), I’ve made pictures with other Puerto Rican women in PR and the US. We first meet and discuss ideas without the camera. When we meet again for photographs, they’re typically staged. I’ll have an idea or a gesture in mind that I’ll ask the person to perform for the camera. That’s just how we start. Improvising leads the rest of the way.  

I also have a growing list of symbols, words, and ideas I’m looking for in the world, and sometimes find, if I’m lucky. For example, the ring of condensation on the airport window in San Juan, or the handful of photographs meticulously taped together onto a botanica window in the Bronx. I was moving through the world thinking about humidity, about hot and cold air clashing, and about fragments coming together to form a whole. Other times, I intervene and set things up in order to abstract or fragment space, such as leaning a broken mirror onto my Mom’s tropical-green living room wall. 

In the past, a body of work would be bound by a place, such as Otra Vida, Otra Vez (2011-2016), which was mostly made in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Today, the photographs are united primarily by ideas, symbols, gestures, light, colors, and materials.


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What’s next for you?

I’m writing this in October of 2020. The collective uncertainty is massive. It’s hard to say. But without a doubt, nurturing my intuition, taking care of myself, and trying to be as present as possible for my loved ones. 

Taking care of myself also means making space for creative energy to move through me. I have been very fatigued with the ongoing, unfolding tragedy we are living. But my studio (or creative time, in the studio or out) is a sanctuary. I’m curious about how this time will change my work in the long run, and I am open to new ways of thinking and working. I’m currently making photographs and videos in my home and on my studio roof.  I continue to think a lot about imagination, presence/absence, light/shadow, and the possibilities in negative space and the unknown. I’m making things with cut out images of skies, copies of photos of women in my family from an album that survived the hurricane, broken mirrors, and lots of tape. My memory card is full of blue skies at various times of the day. I’m playing, and listening.  


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If you could have a coffee chat with one inspirational figure, who would it be? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the writer and poet Ocean Vuong, and how affirming his writing is to my life and practice. I feel held by his work. An image from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has stuck with me for months- “He is asking a question, or questions, he is turning the air around his words into weather. Is there a language for falling out of language?” 


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Have you ever experimented with other artistic mediums? 

Yes! Drawing, sewing, theatre, dance, sound, music, creative writing, the list goes on. In college, I studied painting, drawing, and sculpture in addition to photography. Recently I have explored performance, which eventually made its way into my photographic practice. Currently, in addition to making photographs, I make videos. The camera has resonated with me the most.


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How would you relate your work to the political turmoil taking place in the USA? 

My work is being made from within these conditions, so it is inherently related to it. However, even before 2020, my work and I have grappled with various forms of precarity. For example, a space in one photo from a few years ago no longer exists, a person photographed in their home has had to leave that home, and a landscape in a body of work has completely transformed due to climate change. Grappling with the realities and consequences of systemic violence has been part of my practice, and life, for a long time.

Amongst many things, when I look at my recent and current work I see fragmentation, care between people, space-making where space did not previously exist, and the possibilities in the unknown. These ideas resonate with me today, especially.


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If you could go back 10 years, what would you tell your former self? 

You are enough. Don’t be afraid. 


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Do you remember the first time you realised you wanted to become a photographer? Could you tell us about that memory?

I remember looking at something really familiar and mundane, and then seeing it transform before my eyes once I photographed it, and it felt like a super power. It really felt like magic. 

I can recall the feeling of understanding, at a young age, that art-making was a spacious place, and a place that held me and my multiplicity like no other. I still feel this way.


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What could you say about the role of what you call the diasporic life in your work?  

It’s a part of my life and experience that is very vast, inspires me, aches, and keeps me restless. It is often a starting point for my inquiries. It is the universe from which a lot of my work comes from, but is not bound to. 


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At the end of every interview we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you’d like us to interview next. Who would you suggest? 

Jenny Calivas! I am constantly learning so much from her, and from her work and process. I feel deeply affirmed and uplifted by Jenny. She’s amazing!