In one photo, a ruffled white leather glove leaps over its companion against a blue and green background. In another, a tidy, woven pillbox hat drags long locks of blonde hair towards a false eyelash, a withered rose, and a stray butterfly wing. In a third photo, curving pastel hats sit like frosty confections among smashed berries and ripped strips of black tape. These are the whimsical, wacky concoctions of the Spanish artist Ouka Leele, who turned a commission to shoot French fashion designer Philippe Model’s 1988 accessories line into a quirky exploration of her own artistry.
Thirty-three years later, Leele’s pictures still vibrate with a playful, inventive energy. La luz que reflejan los cuerpos danza dentro de mis ojos (The Light that the Bodies Reflect Dances Within my Eyes) at Intersticio in Madrid is the first public exhibition of the photos since the year they were made.
Born Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma in Madrid in 1957, Leele began her career as a painter. But her vocation shifted on her first trip to a darkroom in the 1970s. “The first time I saw an image appear on a piece of paper submerged in developer, I was fascinated,” Leele writes in a recent email to Hyperallergic. “I decided to learn photography, believing that all contemporary artists had to use this tool. It felt like a language of our times.” Leele spent her savings studying at the Photocentro school in Madrid, and soon her work began to appear in books, magazines, and exhibitions.
Freed from decades of dictatorship after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, young people like Leele in Spain’s largest cities were fomenting the new visual arts, music, and writing of the “Movida,” a cultural movement that spawned creatives like director Pedro Almodóvar, comic artist Ceesepe, and singer Alaska. In Madrid and later in Barcelona, Leele was at the forefront of these new artistic currents. “They saw me as the young star of photography,” she declares.
In 1988, Leele was invited to create a new body of work at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The artist describes her small cottage in the Fondation’s lush gardens — complete with singing birds and flocks of fireflies — as something out of a fairy tale, and a key inspiration for the magical quality behind her photographic series. When the Fondation introduced Leele to Philippe Model, her scenic surroundings presented a path.
“The truth is that I’ve never been a fashion photographer,” Leele notes. Previously, she’d shot mostly people in black and white and then painted over her pictures in bright, tangy colors. But this time, she would use “Big Bertha,” a large-format Polaroid camera — the only one of its kind in Europe at the time — to produce big color prints. She created backdrops with paint, pigment, and sand, and scoured the Fondation’s storage rooms and trash cans for unique props. “I was using materials that seemed like throwaways, but in front of the camera they were spectacular,” she remembers. Combined with the hats, gloves, shoes, and bags, Leele’s arrangements form curious, Surrealist-flavored tableaux. In them, Model’s femmy, flowery designs resemble theatrical characters more than commercial products.
What does the artist think of the pictures now? “I love them!” she affirms. “It’s a series created in the middle of a creative process without interruptions. It was something very pure, different, [and] free. Where I didn’t try to make an Ouka Leele, but instead I let myself go, becoming completely immersed in creating in a very free way.”
La luz que reflejan los cuerpos danza dentro de mis ojos (The Light that the Bodies Reflect Dances Within my Eyes) continues at Intersticio (Calle de Alcántara, 31, Madrid) through September 4.