A lone woman stands at the edge, looking down into the abyss that is her life. The night is confidential, with only the stars to bear witness. She carefully opens the box of matches that she has been worrying in her hands for the last several hours. She takes one last sip of the wine that has been both her companion and her fortification on this dark and still night. She strikes the match and watches as her world is engulfed in flame.
Marcela Diaz was raised in Monterrey, Mexico but when her father died suddenly at age 38, she and her young mother and six brothers and sisters returned to their roots, to Merida. “I was only 8 years old when I lost my father,” Marcela shared, “and in a way, I lost my mother too. She was always in the home, but after my father died, she had to work to support us. We moved away from a life with my father, to one without him, and that was a little frightening for all of us.”
It is hard to imagine Marcela frightened by anything—she embodies a ferocity and strength that belie her soft voice and slight stature. She sits across from me, a recent pixie haircut rendering her much younger than her 53 years. Like the phoenix, Marcela has risen from the ashes of a life touched by pain and loss. She has cleared away the detritus of her soul, and channeled her passion and conviction into the one thing that transcends loss—her work.
It is the work that connects us. Her massively intricate henequen and cotton rope sculptures are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The crosses spiked with cactus, the ropes and knots coiled like bodies in death and life, the dresses towering above my head; all are beautiful and commanding, and I was determined to meet the artist responsible for stirring my own soul.
Like a sentinel, the woman stands guard as flames lay waste to her life’s blood, to her grief. Sweat and tears and hundreds of days of solitude are now a funeral pyre of anger and self-loathing. She breathes in the acrid smell of the burning henequen, feeling no remorse over what she has done. This is her penance, her cross to bear. Her beloved no longer walks the earth and it is the burning pit that will release her from her mantle of shame.
Marcela Diaz became an artist late in life—she was 43 when she had her first exhibition. I was curious as to the catalyst for her dramatic transition from wife and mother to obsessed artist, and asked how this came about. “When I took my eldest son to university in the US, I cried all the way home on the plane,” Marcela shared. She grew quiet as she replayed this moment in her mind, still fresh even though a decade had passed. “It was like I could see my life ahead of me—a life full of loss. I could see that I would lose my next three sons to the world, just like my firstborn, but more importantly, I could see that I would lose myself.”
The pain around that moment was etched on Marcela’s face, and I waited quietly while she collected herself. “Even though I was raised by staunch Catholic parents, I am not a practicing Catholic. I do not go to mass or confess my sins. However, I do have almost daily conversations with God and I do believe in divine providence. There have been many places in my life where I could not see beyond my own pain. And in each of these places, a gift was bestowed on me that I can only interpret as some kind of miracle.”
I was struck by Marcela’s openness and generosity with me, given the infancy of our friendship. I asked her about these ‘gifts’, these moments of divine providence, and how they have shaped her as a person, as an artist.
“Gerda Gruber was one of my gifts,” Marcela laughs. “I was 39 years old when I saw an advertisement in the paper that Gerda was accepting one more student for her 3-year sculpture residency. I was still in a deep melancholy that seemed to have no end, and Gerda’s call for artists awoke my soul. I was not an artist and never had been, but I knew with every fibre of my being that this is what I was meant to do. Obviously Gerda believed that too—she accepted my impassioned plea and three years later, I had found my voice as an artist.
A small, persistent sound breaks the womans’ reverie and for a moment, she wonders where she is. The sound continues, then stops, and a voice whispers in her ear, “Hermanita, preciosa, su sobrina está llamando desde Francia.” The woman turns to see her sister standing next to her – it seems her sister is always next to her. The woman takes the phone and hears the distant voice of her niece. “Tia, I saw him, I saw Tio in a beautiful dream. He was sitting in a chair, looking at your exposition, at all your work, and he was smiling. He told me how proud he is of you, how very very proud. He was so real I felt I could touch him.”
I asked Marcela about all the crosses in her work, an obvious symbol, I thought, given her religious upbringing. “My crosses are not symbols of Christianity—my crosses are symbols of man and womankind,” she said. “They may lie down in abject despair, they may stand strong with arms thrown wide to say, ‘Here I am, embrace who I am’. Or they may release their angry thorns to the world because to keep that anger in is to die.”
And the dresses? “The dresses are beautiful”, she agrees, “but they are more than that. The dresses are like ‘artificios’, masks we wear as women, with the roles we play or are forced to play. They represent the confines of a society concerned with perception and correctness. They represent the strength and individuality inherent in ourselves but often not seen or embraced. They represent the Dona, the Wife, the Child, the Madre, the Puta, the Mestiza, the Yucatecan.” When I asked about the henequen itself, there was no hesitation. “Henequen is the Yucatan, the Yucatan is the henequen, and so I am the henequen. The henequen embodies a history of extreme wealth and poverty, strength and fragility, beauty and pain. I found myself in the henequen, I found my sense of place, I found Marcela.”
The woman stands at the edge of the smouldering fire, watching as the remnants of her work hang themselves in the sky like stardust. Her body becomes a divining rod, returning to the source of her anguish as if to say, “This too, is the source of your awakening.” With a clarity she has never known, the woman understands this is not the end of her life’s work, this is just the beginning. And it is her beloved who has set her free.