Frustrated student of Fine Arts, the Madrid artist who painted her own snapshots dies a month before her 65th birthday
Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma always said that she had come to photography by chance. “She used to doodle since she was a child. She always interested me in art, drawing, painting and, from time to time, she would pick up a camera. Now I think it was the photo that sought me out and it chose me », the photographer, painter and poet known as Ouka Leele confessed a few years ago. In short, a total creator, passionate about color, who died last night in a Madrid hospital accompanied by her daughter, the rest of her family and friends a month before (June 29) her 65th birthday.
That childhood was marked by visits to the Prado -he was struck by El Greco’s paintings- and to the Sierra de Guadarrama with his parents Gabriel, an architect with a passion for painting, and Victoria, sister of the poet Jaime Gil de Biedma. “The forest was nailed to my soul forever,” she said in 2015. That passion for painting turned her into a frustrated attempt to study Fine Arts, which she parked to try to learn to play the piano while learning the most basic elements of art that he consecrated it in Photocentro. Meanwhile, she overcame lymphoma at just 22 years old.
Already in his first major exhibition, ‘Peluquería’ (1978-79), Ouka Lele demonstrated his particular free spirit. A name that he chose from an unlikely constellation painted in a painting by the Gardener, for many years his sentimental partner. At the end of the last century, she found out that with one more ‘e’, her stage name meant ‘go around the world’ in the language of the Bubi of Equatorial Guinea. She added that vowel with much satisfaction.
In the exhibition, the artist decided to take all the photographs in black and white and then give them the color she wanted with her watercolors. She merged her two passions and began a career that took her, at the beginning, to Mexico and New York.
Upon his return in 1981, Ouka Leele fitted in perfectly with the artistic movement that had blossomed in the country after the dictatorship: the movida madrileña. She became the unofficial photographer of the moment. “It is a phenomenon in which I am proud to have participated, although it cannot be said strictly that I was the photographer of the movement,” explained the artist herself, a few years ago, at the presentation of one of her exhibitions. «I lived those years with passion, as everyone else did, but perhaps it was Pablo Pérez-Mínguez. The whole world passed by his study », recalled a faithful representative of what was called postmodernity.
At that time he rubbed shoulders with Javier Mariscal, Ceesepe, Alberto García-Alix and Pedro Almodóvar, for whom he designed the hats for ‘Laberinto de pasiones’ (1982). Five years later, the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art -now Costume- dedicated a retrospective to him. That same year, he participated in the São Paulo Biennial and staged the great staging in Plaza de Cibeles, even cutting off traffic, where he represented the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes. In 1988, he arrived in Paris with his giant Polaroids for the Cartier Foundation. Ouka Leele’s works have been seen in numerous countries and he has works in art galleries such as the Reina Sofía.
Over the years, Ouka Leele’s work evolves. She never stops merging different artistic disciplines, where she was “very comfortable”, although her colors were softening – she gradually abandoned those garish options that she presented in ‘Hairdressing’ – and opened up her creative space. To the exterior. Examples were the mural she created in Ceutí (Murcia), whose creation was seen in the film ‘Ouka Leele’s gaze’ or in her work for the María Cristina Masaveu Peterson Foundation’s ‘Miradas de Asturias’ programme.
National Photography Award in 2005, Silver Medal from the Community of Madrid and Medal from the city (2022) where she was born, Ouka Leele assured that any tool to express herself was worth it, «from a mobile phone to the most powerful camera on the market ». «I am attentive to any moment and any circumstance. Both spontaneity and montage serve me », she explained.