An Animal in Her Time
by Ruth Miller and Mark Jew
Cecilia Paredes was afraid of snakes, at least until she became one. During a session in her studio for the piece Snake Woman, 2000, Paredes laid down, trying to remain as still as possible while all but the edge of her body was entirely buried underneath the sand by her assistants. As the anxiety of being below the surface washed away from her and her heart relaxed, Paredes began to feel a sense of transference as she purged her fears of the animal and suffocation. By working through her own experience of discomfort under the sand, Paredes developed a new mental state so that she could endure the transformation she had envisioned: to acquire the identity of a snake, protected and camouflaged.
Paredes is an internationally renowned Peruvian artist known for her unique sculpture and photo-performance work. She combines themes of origin, nature, and femininity to create a beautifully subtle blend of visual aesthetics, self-introspection, and representation. Her artwork is created through the lens of her past and present life experiences, integrated with her cultural, poetic, and environmental influences.
As a child, Paredes would create artwork using actual pieces from nature – sticks, twigs, leaves – and would paste them onto paper. As she grew up in Peru, a geographically and culturally divided country, her ethnically diverse family played an important role in supporting her artistic development. Her mother fostered her talents, saved her work, and encouraged her creativity while other family members practiced different forms of art.
Paredes began her fine art education in Lima where she learned the self-discipline necessary for creating art. Following her studies in Peru, she attended Cambridge School of Arts and Crafts in the United Kingdom and then completed further studies in Rome.
After finishing her education, Paredes repeatedly traveled, gaining international experience and recognition for her art. She currently divides her time between Philadelphia and San José, Costa Rica, researching and producing her work in both cities. While in Philadelphia, she lectures intermittently at the University of Pennsylvania. She considers San José her “home-base” and frequently visits the beautiful tropical forests near her studio there for inspiration.
Traveling frequently, Paredes is inspired by the many locations and cultures she encounters. Her travels and deep immersion in a variety of cultures has given her a nomadic-like perspective that informs her work. This condition is partly the result of her choice to divide her time between North and Central America as she fully pursues her career as an artist. Her itinerant existence is reflected in her art as she wanders, and in a metaphorical sense, portraying her many selves.
As Paredes moves through the many forms, subjects and ideas of her work, the theme of origin is highly important and all-encompassing to her. She views the concept of origin in a literal and poetic sense. Her art lies in the methodology of investigating possibilities of where her origins lie. From that basis, she uses a blend of sculptural forms and photography to convey a vision of her mutable identity.
Paredes, with the aid of her assistants, commonly spends weeks preparing for a photo shoot, refining the concept, and laying out the technical details. The result is a photographic register of an intricately staged event in which she may perform as an animal-like creature, a mythical being, or en element drawn from nature. She will often merge her identity with animals that are generally unrepresented or marginalized in popular culture. She also chooses particular animals based on how she identifies with them, or as a way to face her fears and prejudice about that particular creature. Paredes wishes to give these animals dignity by showing they are worthy creatures, perfect as they are within nature. With many of her pieces, Paredes’ transformation transcends the visual realm, as her deepest consciousness reaches towards the animal she is depicting. The process of creating her work, in turn, relieves Paredes of her own misgivings about her subjects.
Her self-portrait images often interpret herself as coming to a middle ground with nature, morphing into an entity that is not completely human or completely animal, but something new and mythical, as in Venada, 2001, in which she is presented as a human-deer hybrid. Underneath the various subjects Paredes chooses to represent, is her body, a “blank canvas”, which has been painted, posed, costumed, or digitally altered. Her approach to the traditional understanding of an artist’s self-portrait is unconventionally figurative. She regards her work as private act— a part of her personal journey of self-discovery and interpretation. It is in these personal and private aspects that Paredes’ work becomes a truer form of the self-portrait. Paredes is exploring exactly where she fits in with the natural world.
She is inspired by nature and her personal relationship to it, as she sees her first exposure to art as synonymous with her first exposure to nature. This idea of working with nature continues strongly through her contemporary pieces. Her photographic work is at times set in nature, such as in Birdman Contemplating, 2008, in which she lays on a tree limb in middle the woods. In her sculpture, natural elements are also clearly referenced and integrated. In some work, Paredes constructed trees from replicas of her hands and arms. She also has cast her feet with inlaid twigs that protrude outward from where the body should continue or run along the sides of the skin. These strong lines could be interpreted as roots or veins, but like her photographs, they lay somewhere in between as an allusion to both.
While she uses many natural forms such as seashells or bird feathers, Paredes makes sure to always pick materials that have already been or will be discarded. Often these materials have an ephemeral quality, which she often preserves with the aid of taxidermists. Her body of work contains various articles of clothing constructed from incredibly delicate material such as dragonfly wings, or chicken wishbones. In her piece To See You Through, a dress made of leaves without chlorophyll, she transforms something common into a manifestation of the artist merging with or originating from nature. For Paredes, the dresses become a surrogate skin as they contour the human body. The dresses also reference femininity, in homage to women-dominated skills or crafts.
In her more recent photo-performance works, Paredes has shifted her focus to feelings about migration and displacement. These themes emerged from her life outside of Costa Rica, as Paredes feels more at ease in the tropics. In contrast, she has spent relatively less time in the type of natural regions surrounding Philadelphia.
This has led to the development of photos such as Blue Landscape, 2008. Mythological creatures play no role in these new photographs because mythical stories have their origins in the history and nature indigenous to the region, and Paredes has no personal history with her new type of location. This image depicts Paredes, seminude, now painted, in an interior setting. She stares forward situated in front of walls plastered with floral designs on wallpaper. The environment here is patently artificial as it incorporates sentimental, mawkish renderings of tropical themes—blatantly alluding to a stereotypical visual perception of Latin American aesthetics. Instead of acting as a backdrop for her image, these interior environments are a subject equal to her physical presence in the photograph. She is truly transformed into a disenfranchised migrant—absorbed by her surroundings.
There are other works in her repertoire that strongly hint at gender, but Cecilia Paredes does not consider herself a feminist in the classical sense. In her series entitled, The Subtleness of the Ordinary, 2003, as in her other photo-performances, she uses natural forms to metamorphose her body into a new being. Here the focus is on the genitalia, but the depictions here are ambiguous. The images create a cohesive balance and contrast between the genders, as she is a female using her body in her work, while simultaneously acknowledging the male side of humanity. The flower forms easily bring to mind reproduction, simultaneously resembling both an opening to the womb and having phallic qualities. Paredes is not antagonistic to the other gender. She is not interested in one aspect over another or pushing ideas of equality. Instead, she focuses on her whole being, how she can be both a masculine and feminine entity simultaneously.
Her artwork also speaks of environmentalism within the bounds of Paredes’ personal relationship to nature and her interest in preserving the environment. In May of 2008 she participated as a panelist in a United Nations’ seminar titled “Art Changing Attitudes toward the Environment” in which she and other artists shared their work and concerns with the world, and how their art can bring awareness to what is happening. She is a full-time artist, yet her personal connection and interest in nature and the environment certainly push environmental awareness as a clear window through which Paredes’ work can be viewed.
Paredes’ work recognizes the inherent relationship between the origins of humanity and the natural world. While her methods and aesthetics have changed, she is largely addressing the same range of issues from origin, to migration, to femininity. Her balance between traditional artistic methods and the incorporation of natural elements creates a genuinely beautiful fusion and contrast between art and nature—where her art always seems to insinuate itself. As much as these images and objects are viewed in a public setting, they retain a sense of privacy or ritualistic secrecy. In the process of creating and interpreting, the artist is seeking a poetic connection to the world. And the art produced through her investigations have created a window into a reality where she expertly delivers to us a simultaneous sense of enchantment and verisimilitude.
Ruth Miller and Mark Jew are interns in the Museum and Gallery Practices Program at Humboldt State University. © 2009, Humboldt State University. All rights reserved.