“I need to make people vibrate with colors,” Ouka Leele said with a broad smile last July at the Rencontres d’Arles exhibition devoted to the Movida. A photographer, painter, poet, and filmmaker, the artist born in 1957 remains one of the key figures of that artistic movement of the 1980s, founded in Madrid in the aftermath of Franco’s Spain.
She photographs in black and white and then colorizes her images with watercolors to take us into a zany and poetic universe with garish colors, a display of soft and whimsical kitsch where prints from the well-known Peluquerías (Hair salons) series are shown alongside more recent but equally captivating works.
An explosion of flavors
There is a flavorful side to Ouka Leele’s photos. First, food is everywhere in them, such as this self-portrait of the artist posing in front of Madrid’s Metropolis with a big smile, red cheekbones, and a huge piece of meat in her hand (she’s vegan). Then, the tangy tones in her images give us the pleasant impression of licking the window of a delicious pastry store. In fact, several of her photos went on to become posters for ads.
Masterfully staged, her universe is a zero gravity world where plates, cutlery and tulips fly around. No photoshopping here, just ingenious ways of fixing the objects. Viewers won’t balk at the pleasure of revisiting her fabulous Peluquerías series, in which anonymous or famous figures pose for the camera donning an outrageous hairdo: a woman’s leg, a newspaper, an iron, and even an octopus. Wacky scenes with vibrant hues.
While Ouka Leele’s work is often associated with this extravagant and humorous universe, there is also great poetry in it, as evidenced by the Volaverunt print from 1988: softer, bluish colors give life to the wings of plaster angels abandoned in the dust of a storehouse.
The exhibition ends with very soft nudes, unique painted prints made in 1998 and not as well known. The atmosphere is peaceful, less hysterical. Ouka Leele’s palette has quieted down; it is more subdued and nuanced, but still full of color, showcasing tremendous evidence of her boundless creative freedom.
By Michaël Naulin