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Ouka Leele

Apartamento x LOEWE

Apartamento and LOEWE are pleased to bring you TO CRAFT A LIFE, an editorial collaboration for Apartamento magazine issue #28, featuring conversations that explore the lives of three Spanish artists, Ouka Leele, Carlota Guerrero, and Bikôkô, all captured in the intimacy of their homes by a fourth, Seville-born photographer Coco Capitán. United by uncompromising artistic visions, all four women have at some point in their respective journeys embarked on the road less travelled, sidestepping conventional narratives to craft a life of their own. With a shared desire to celebrate today’s craftsmanship, we’ve come together from our respective homes in Barcelona and Madrid to tell the stories of artists mastering their own crafts.

Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine

Interview by Chus Martínez
Photography by Coco Capitán

Apartamento Magazine - Ouka Leele
Apartamento magazine Issue #28

There’s a certain period of Spanish cultural history where the name Ouka Leele isn’t just inescapable but intrinsic to the creation of a certain sense of artistic freedom and identity. When the cloud of Franco’s regime started to dissipate in the mid ‘70s, the counterculture movement known as La Movida Madrileña was doing its best to break the cultural milieu wide open with its experiments in art, music, fashion, sexual and gender norms, and any other conceivable form of expression. Ouka Leele, who was just starting out on her photography studies at the time, became one of the few to capture the scene from the inside, creating a technique that’s instantly recognisable today, as she painted over her surreal, theatrical photo portraits in lurid, saturated colours.

But all this is for context. As I prepared for our conversation, I took a look back through the work of Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma, Ouka Leele’s real name, and realised instead that I was most looking forward to learning first-hand how the past months have been for the artist. Has she worked more or differently? Was she alone? How has her creative thinking evolved in the city where she’s produced her main body of work, one that is so linked to place? I cautiously tried to avoid talking about her previous pieces and, yes, she confessed to growing tired of certain labels, the eternal referencing of the Movida to explain her practice. Suddenly the conversation flowed in other directions, related to our current times and how they’ve led to new discoveries in relation to materials, missing nature and the earth, and drawing, textures, and pleasure. We talked as if we knew each other somehow, and for the photos we were joined by Bárbara’s daughter, fashion designer María Rosenfeldt. The talk left the impression of a bond that will surely continue to grow; her voice was beautifully kind, and I hope you will also become a friend of sorts to Ouka Leele after reading this conversation.

Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine

I wanted to begin by asking how you are. Have you focused more on your work during the pandemic and started new things?

To begin with, I spent more time trying to figure out what was going on. I read a lot until I got fed up and said, ‘I’m living another life that isn’t mine’, and I started drawing instead. I started to discover that I worked well with charcoal, ash, and palo santo wood. And since I was spending all my time with that, I started drawing with the charcoal of palo santo. It gives you gorgeous greys; it’s very mystical.

I wanted to ask because every time I read about your work there’s a recurring theme, which is to talk about La Movida Madrileña, the clan, and the way certain artists capture the portrait of a certain group. It must be a little tiresome to have to go back to that again and again. People have a really hard time looking at the recent work of an artist and always refer to the past.

Yes, I think it gives them a sense of security: it’s already been consolidated, so it’s definitely worth something. But, hey, look at what’s coming out now as well.

So is your work going in another direction now?

It’s not only about painted photographs, which I still do sometimes. But I’ve separated the photography from the painting, the drawing. Each is its own thing.

Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine
Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine

The drawings you’re doing now, what are they about?

My sense of touch has developed a lot throughout the pandemic, I don’t know why. I derive a lot of pleasure from touching the charcoal and rubbing it along the paper, making textures. I do it for my own personal satisfaction. And that’s where I let myself get carried away; whatever emerges from the charcoal is very free. Then I start giving it shape and figurative elements appear.

Have you worked with ceramics?

Yes, but just a bit.

Do you imagine the sculpture emerging from the clay, or are you making it?

I think it’s born of my physical pleasure, just like everything that’s happening with me at the moment. I’m dying of pleasure, I don’t know what it is. So you start to touch, then touch some more, and that pleasure leads you to the form.

Do you imagine these sculptures almost as part of an opera, with your drawings as the backdrop and the objects in the middle? Or do you see them as separate?

They could be together. I’ve actually always thought about works of art in a theatrical way—that people are going to a theatre and what they see is a work of art. That isn’t done a lot.

Apartamento Magazine - Ouka Leele
Serie Peluquería. El Hortelano, 1978.
Apartamento Magazine - Ouka Leele
Serie Peluquería. El Hortelano III, 1978.

Are there many of these new drawings?

No, it’s quite recent. I was very wrapped up in the charcoal and the ash, just for myself. Then I said, ‘What am I doing?’ It was very animal, but I decided that something physical should come out of it. Palo santo also has this incredible smell, and when I draw with it the paper retains the scent.

If you had an exhibition tomorrow, would smell be part of the show?

I’d fill it with incense made from palo santo.

Would you have ash on the floor?

I’d love to do it. And earth, the smell of earth. I’d go with ash all over me; I put it on my face and body.

I’m crazy about all these philosophies of nature and all the women philosophers from the late ‘60s onwards, from Suzi Gablick to Donna Haraway. They all dealt with this connection with the earth, empathy with different elements. It’s very present.

Someone’s child once said to me, ‘Oh, I’m an apartment boy’. When we entered lockdown I thought, ‘How awful for the apartment boy; I mean, now I’m an apartment woman, stuck here’. But then you realise the body is wild. However much you enclose it, there’s a natural part of human beings that returns to nature. I thought I should bring the earth to me; I could fill the bathtub with soil, cover myself in ash, and jump inside. It’s a requirement of nature! At the same time, with everything that’s going on at the moment, it makes you start expressing strange things, like all the ash, the incense; it almost has something sacred to it.

Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine

Are your days mostly about making art, or do you do other things?

The basic part is art, because whether you like it or not you always have to be preparing things, exhibitions. The other part is taken up by hobbies: I’m very interested in natural medicine, cooking, plants. I really like Bach flower remedies.

What do you like to cook?

I’ve gone through a lot of stages and spent many years as a vegan, eating raw food. I was thinking about getting rid of the oven, the whole kitchen, but not anymore. Now I cook with heat too. I got a lot of energy from it though and, again, a lot of pleasure—a constant orgasmic sensation in my body.

But you’re not doing it anymore?

I’m combining it because I’ve been a bit weak and the doctor warned me that I need to eat other things, not only vegetables.

Have you always lived in the same place, or have you changed flats a lot?

I’ve lived here since 1982.

If you didn’t live in Madrid, where would you live?

I like Berlin and Paris a lot. But there are places I’ve never been that I’m sure I’d really like—lost villages somewhere or other. I love Italy as well; I’ve been to Rome a lot.

Going back to your work with ash, earth, palo santo, incense, pigment, clay: Rome is a place that understands such things. It has a strong sense of the anachronic. Not all places have the same sensibility for touch. Rome is falling apart, the stone is porous; if you run your hand across a monument it scratches you.

I could go crazy there, spending my time scratching the walls.

The blackness of the charcoal also serves as a kind of phoenix; it takes you out and frees you from many of the narratives your work has attracted for so many years. There’s almost a sense of redemption through charcoal.

I once saw a burning tree. It was burnt black by a lightning strike, but the inside was still red from the burning embers. It was one of those matte blacks, intense, and then the red at the heart of the embers. Do you know the artist Clara Carvajal? She burns wood.

I’m not sure I do, but you’re also describing the potential for public art in nature. In the US, there’s a tradition of these ephemeral ash sculptures. The idea of fire needs to be rethought, because it has its own mind. The other day I was reading The Psychoanalysis of Fire by Gaston Bachelard, where he tries to understand how it works. In Switzerland I went to see some artisans who make natural charcoal; they do it with a specific type of wood and once they burn it, the shape of the wood is left behind, like a sculpture.

Is it still being done?

‘I do it for my own personal satisfaction. And that’s where I let myself get carried away; whatever emerges from the charcoal is very free’.

Yes, they burn the wood for months, so slowly that it seems like a mist rather than smoke. The resulting charcoal burns slowly, just like incense in temples. And when you burn it, you’re not just killing the wood; to a certain degree you’re reactivating it so that it turns back into earth, so that wood can emerge from the earth anew.

It’s all alive. There’s a feeling that only animals and plants are alive. But all things, including rocks, are alive.

We’re missing that kind of understanding. In many other traditions, especially in Asia and Africa, there’s a kind of geological memory—the memory of the earth, the memory of the water. Now there’s a kind of revival of the idea that we can understand water as having memory or plasticity.

Bach flowers are the hologram of the flower, for example.

Really?

Yes. Water is photosensitive, so the flowers are placed in water, you put them in the sun together, and the flowers leave behind their shape in the water, in a photosensitive kind of way. The water has memory. When I was looking into the subject of flowers, I found a book about Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German nun. She was already making similar remedies, and she said that when you go into a church and see the shape of an acanthus leaf on a column, that form is healing you—again, it was about the shape.

Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine
Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine

A beautiful tradition. And now people are starting to rediscover painters like Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz, artists who were considered crazy, to put it simply. But they have a much more holistic way of thinking about relationships.

Those women were visionaries. It’s as if they came from our own era; their work can be better understood now. They took something like physics and transformed it into mysticism.

Well, let’s say that science is slowly finding what intuition had already discovered. First you find it in an intuitive way, and then science goes about formalising it.

That’s very beautiful, especially for those who need the formalisation. Me, I don’t need it at all!

Ouka Leele | Apartamento Magazine
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