Cecilia Paredes is best known for works she calls photographic performance, which are large-scale color prints made through elaborate stagings and refigurations of her body. She portrays herself enveloped and camouflaged by sumptuously printed fabrics, material that functions more as a ‘habitat’ than as a backdrop: a place of thought and pure being.
Paredes’ photographic representations are remarkable for the level of transformation they imply, not only of the physical body, but also of the artist’s psyche. She acts as both creator and subject of these images, and we, as viewers, are called to witness moments of profound interiority, a reckoning with oneself. Time stands still in these works; Paredes interprets stillness as a way of visualizing contemplation in expressions of an ever-questioning and constantly evolving self.
Cecilia Paredes has developed a profoundly multidisciplinary approach, drawing as much from performance, painting, sculpture and literature as from the photographic medium. Conscientious in their conception and execution, the photographic representations are the culmination of a demanding process, which refuses to reveal the labor of their making. And despite the sense of intimacy it creates, this is also a collaborative process involving the expertise of a painter, photographer, lighting designer and seamstresses, each bringing skills and artistry to bear in a kind of alchemical process: skin becomes canvas, body becomes sculpture, and the mise en scène that is assembled fuses the artist’s vision into a perfectly crystallized moment; an evocative poetic gesture that gives tangible form to thought and memory.
These presentations of the self are motivated by the search for transcendence, communion with nature and towards a more perfect self. And yet, as the artist herself acknowledges, her creation is accompanied by a relentless questioning and a search for answers that do not come easily. Paredes’ biography and her history of displacement and adaptation to the various places she has called home have profoundly influenced her artistic vision. Born and raised in Peru, politics in Lima in the 1970s forced her to leave the country. She has lived in Mexico and Costa Rica, and for many years in the United States. Paredes defines her life outside Peru as a form of exile, an estrangement from family and culture. And as the only actress in these stagings, she adopts changing forms and seems unbound to the specificities of time and place. Evoking qualities such as isolation and uncertainty, it reflects the invisible psychological dimensions of exile.
The 2021 photographic representation “The Blue Flight” for example, reflects the ways in which Paredes draws on numerous spheres, including her autobiography, literature, mythology and spirituality, to grapple with the complexities of her identity and place in the world. Here, she stops and turns away from the viewer as if submitting to an idealized vision of nature, to a more perfect realm. Walls, surrounded and covered by a fabric adorned with the stylized form of a heron, appears ethereal, as if approaching a form of weightlessness. This bird has a multitude of cross-cultural associations: it has represented self-determination and self-sufficiency, and also, by stillness and tranquility, the values that Paredes embodies as she sinks into the background. As the artist points out, the heron is a beautiful but aggressive-looking bird. In Japanese tradition, the heron drives away the plague and returns with purity, making it an apt symbol for our times. Although these various allusions are not made explicit, they are there, underscoring the way she manifests both the mystery and meaning of her work.
The herons in “El Vuelo Azul” and the botanical and animal motifs visible in other photographs evoke nature in an instant, no doubt, but for Paredes, they point to a more sublime state and his deep connection to the land and animals. More broadly, the environment and its degradation is a theme she has woven throughout much of his work in artistic media. In an earlier body of staged black and white images, Paredes transformed himself into a mythological bird-man inhabiting a wild wooded environment. She has also been portrayed transforming herself into an octopus, adorned with bright parrot feathers, or in the form of an armadillo. Over time, such depictions gave way to his current photo-performances that convey a more poetic and psychologically charged meditation on the human condition. And unlike earlier photographic representations in which Paredes’ painted body was more perceptible, in this recent work the intricate patterns of the fabric extend so seamlessly from canvas to skin that she becomes almost invisible.
In other works, we see Paredes facing the viewer, her form almost hidden by lush foliage. She brings her hands to her face, revealing only her dark eyes staring outward. In this rendition of the fully transformed body, Paredes is transformed into something otherworldly; not an animal, but a being with the capacity (and need) for camouflage.
In embracing these idealized versions of nature, Paredes also hints at notions of paradise. In ancient Persia, paradise was visualized as a walled garden or orchard. Paredes speaks of paradise as the unattainable and as a state he seeks to visualize in her work. Her photographic representations take on the character of an ongoing, episodic quest, each one representing a sense of fulfillment or perfection that eludes humanity, one that is perhaps only attainable in art, not in life. Most poignantly, the artist’s use of botanical subjects also becomes a way of representing a form of still life or vanitas.
Paredes’ practice is solitary by nature; she pursues her work in the studio alone, without studio assistants or collaborators, except for the occasional days when a team gathers to assist in the work or making of a photograph.
For Cecilia Paredes, these liminal moments offer possibilities of both convergence and clarity. In fact, she envisions much of this work, these metaphorical refigurations of the self, during the twilight hours, when time itself plays its own passage of transformation and renewal.
Elizabeth Ferrer, essayist, critic, and director and founder of BRIC Brooklyn, New York.