A few days ago a very colorful and paradoxical photo of Pierpaolo Ferrari and Maurizio Cattelan (founders of the magazine Toilet paper) sitting stiffly between mounds of rubble of the same colour. Unbelievable, I thought, it looks like a picture of the Spaniard Ouka Leele! It is a pity that the sad news reached her via Rai News 24 immediately after this thought: “On May 24, 2022, the photographer Ouka Leele, icon of the Movida madrileña, died. The warm and vibrant colors of his paintings shaped the iconography of the Spanish cultural renaissance after Franco’s death.”
That the news has reached Italy speaks volumes about why this author, almost unknown here despite the recent and ongoing exhibitions dedicated to women photographers, was considered a seminal author in Spain. Just to give you an idea: in 2005 the Spanish government awarded her the prize National Photography; He has exhibited his works in prestigious Spanish institutions such as the Reina Sofia Museum and the La Caixa Foundation in Madrid, but also in numerous capitals such as Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo and New York. In 2019, the famous festival Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles dedicated a major exhibition to the authors of the Movida madrileña: The Movida. Chronique d’une agitation 1978-1988; Alberto García-Alix (1956), Ouka Leele (1957), Pablo Pérez-Mínguez (1946-2012) and Miguel Trillo (1953). And for the occasion, he had done her the honor of using a photo of her from the famous series Peluqueria (or the “Hairdresser”) from 1979 as the symbolic image of the festival. Last year, the Madrid Photo España Festival even dedicated an extensive retrospective to her in the Sala Goya of the Círculo de Belles Artes.
But who was this “unknown” (in Italy) and very famous author? His real name was Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma and he came from a wealthy family in Bilbao. His grandfather was a painter; his uncle Jaime Gil de Biedma, a famous poet; her father an architect (he was the one who gave her the first camera): in short, he came from an artistic background that did not put any obstacles in his way when he decided to enter the Academy of Fine Arts and then enroll in photography school photo center from Madrid. Shy and discreet despite the colorful exuberance of her works, she immediately felt uncomfortable signing her works with her real name, so she began introducing herself as “Bárbara Sin Appellido” (Bárbara without a name), then “Bárbara Aaaaaaa”.
But she wasn’t satisfied. One day, in front of a drawing by her artist friend El Hortelano (real name José Alfonso Morera Ortiz), which depicts a constellation of her own invention, she discovers the name of an imaginary star, “Ouka Leele”, and immediately exclaims : “Este, este es el nombre. I enchant ». Thus the pseudonym Ouka Leele was born; and an author is born in the magical moment of a Spain that wants to resurrect, return to life after the oppression and the artistic, cultural and social lethargy of the Franco dictatorship. New galleries, new magazines are opening and with them a movement of young filmmakers (including Pedro Almodóvar), musicians, writers, critics, journalists, painters, sculptors, photographers … who will form them with their innovative and irreverent drive , with their new artistic language called Movida madrileña. The important magazine was published as early as 1982 lapiz and will inaugurate the equally important International Contemporary Art Fair ARCO, still today a point of reference for international contemporary art.
In 1925 Joan Miró made one of his works entitled Photo. Ceci est le couleur de mes rěves, where the color of his dreams turned out to be a colored bruise lay on the sheet next to these writings. Half a century later, Ouka Leele will colorize her playful and imaginary universe with photography. “First I create the image in my head, then I take the photo. The camera allows me to capture the things and situations I have previously created and serves as a basis for painting. My works are a mixture of theatre, imagination, painting and photography »- says the author.
In fact, her technique consists in creating disturbing situations, a little absurd and a little surreal, taking a shot in black and white and then painting the photo with watercolor. Of course, the tradition of painting pictures is very old, just think of Felice Beato in Japan at the end of the Edo period, but there painting was used to add realism to the picture and make it appear more natural. Instead, Ouka Leele uses color in reverse: to give her pictures an even more absurd and slightly trendy touch. So in the series Peluquería 1979-1980, which brought her instant fame, portrays her circle of friends and herself with the craziest objects in mind and then colors everything in the spirit of joy, freedom, imagination.
He glues a large octopus with long tentacles onto the head of a friend and paints it bright red; for another he creates a hair of yellow-orange “blowing” knives; then she dresses a serious friend with a lemon helmet that wraps around her head (and this becomes the cover of the Arles festival); while red and orange fish coiled and held by clocks make up the new hairstyle of El Hortelano, his great friend. A photo from the 1980s shows them together in New York, she with two croissants in her hair, he with a tie made from a beautiful fish. “I don’t think I do anything extravagant, I love the freedom, I love that people can freely interpret themselves.
One day I showed up at an art opening wearing a pig on my head with lightbulbs in its eyes and a suit that looked like the bellows of a camera. But I didn’t want to be extravagant… it was the art of living!” – he says in an interview. After all, she always felt connected to the equally playful and artistic visions that Salvador Dalí translated into works. Speaking of Dalí, a famous painting by Ouka Leele, El beso, 1980, depicts a couple ‘kissing’, revealing groups of hardened teeth, as if to illustrate a phrase by Dalí from his book Confessions Inconfesables, Speaking of his first kiss to Gala, he writes, “Our teeth chattered hard, like shields in battle.” Here the bright colors are transgressive, just as the whole scene is transgressive and absurd, a bit like at the dentist’s, where what matters is not the photograph but the creative process. The peculiarity of his approach consists in detaching the photograph from its usual function – the reproduction of reality – and using it as a preliminary drawing for a painting. In fact, the themes she develops often relate to the pictorial register: portrait, nude, landscape, still life, genre scenes. The rules of classical painting are reappropriated in the service of bizarre and delusional compositions, exacerbated by an extravagant, delicate or rich palette that evokes extravagant effects and offers playful shots.
At times, some critics have approached his work to Pop Art, but while the artists of this movement started from mass media images or from new objects of the consumer industry (from Campbell’s soup cans to Andy Warhol’s Brillo detergent), our author uses only objects of everyday life and of the domestic life, where between spaghetti, cutlery, glasses, fans, fruit and fish, at most a record or a simple television jumps out to be placed in their irreverent stage constructions, where banalities absurdly intertwine.
Such visual constructions are sometimes rich in sumptuous, velvety drapes in a pure España style, such as that used to cover an armchair and portray photographer friend García Alix (1986), posing while displaying a tattoo of his . Again, a big red curtain, a little theatrical, a little reminiscent of the paintings of the past, frames a hyper-smiling woman extracting a box from a box in Madrid, against the backdrop of La Gran Vía and the dome of the Metropóli building. ‘Huge steak (Madrid, 1984), as if it were a kind of Alice in Wonderland who wants to promote Madrid in her own way. Behind her pictures, in which a continuation of surrealism can easily be recognized, there are also classic aspects that refer to her beloved painting, mythology and poetry (on the other hand, she also wrote poems and created drawings). in the Retrato with Jarrón (1982), a stunned woman surrounded by flowers and birds that unexpectedly emerge from the vase that falls from her hands, seems part of the ultra-colorful scene of an Almodóvar film.
While in other works his images seem to plunge into art history or into spaces that conscience does not control, where there is something haunting, obsessive, linked to the sense of death typical of Spanish Counter-Reformation culture. At work ¿Donde vas amor mio, amor me con el aire en un vaso y el mar en un vidrio? (1987) Ouka Leele explicitly takes up the lines of a poem by Federico García Lorca to create a still life in which the water of “the sea” really slides on a mirror glass; but here lost love is symbolized by a huge and disturbing ox heart placed on a plate. in the Hasta que la muerte nos una (1988) two skulls surrounded by flowers rest on a beautiful white cloth, while the title itself seems to echo those cautionary phrases about our transience that are often found in the ossuaries of 16th-century Spanish churches.
From the 1990s, when he began to replace watercolor painting with digital, most of his works will focus on compositions of the female body inserted in contexts of an idealized and imaginary nature, approaching works related to those remember the Pre-Raphaelites. while maintaining an accurate vision and with resolutely revised colors. Now that the “star” Ouka Leele has disappeared from the constellation of Spanish art, we like to remember her with one sentence: “I always start my work as if it were the first time and try to keep the pure look of childhood to preserve when nothing had a name. Finally, my humble artistic language is nothing other than the fruit of the admiration I feel for the divine work of art of which we are part ».