The Spanish photographer, artist and poet Ouka Leele, one of the greatest and brightest talents of the Movida Madrileña cultural explosion that followed the end of the Francisco Franco dictatorship, has died at the age of 64.
Born Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma in Madrid in 1957, Leele began drawing, painting and devouring history of art books at an early age. After studying photography, she alighted on what would become her trademark style – an often riotous fusion of monochrome photographic images overpainted with gaudy watercolours.
Stints in Barcelona and New York were followed by a return to Madrid in 1981 and to a capital that was embracing the creative, debauched and often destructive early days of Spain’s post-Franco reawakening.
The social and political upheaval of the time – a smooth return to democracy was by no means a certainty – gave rise to some of Spain’s best-known cultural figures, including Leele, the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and the photographer Alberto García-Alix.
News of the artist’s death in a Madrid hospital on Tuesday following a long illness prompted numerous tributes.
Miguel Trillo, another veteran chronicler of la movida, called her “a person of unequalled trajectory who belonged to a generation that chose not to be like the ones that came before and which embraced the then intellectually minority tool that was photography”.
Marta Rivera de la Cruz, the culture minister in the Madrid regional government, said the artist’s death was “an irreparable loss” for the life and culture of Madrid.
“She was a brilliant woman who was full of life and full of talent,” said the minister. “She leaves us a fabulous body of work, but she’s gone now and we’re going to miss her very much. You can’t understand the cultural life of Madrid – and still less the so-called Movida Madrileña – without the life and work of Ouka Leele.”
Spain’s governing Socialist party tweeted a picture of one of Leele’s most famous works, 1987’s Rappelle-toi, Bárbara, which brought the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes to Madrid’s Cibeles fountain.
“We mourn the passing of Ouka Leela, a master of photography who knew better than anyone how to get across the essence of the Movida Madrileña,” the party said. “You leave behind work that captured a world. Rest in peace.”
Despite her inextricable association with the movida, Leele was never under any illusions about the dangerous realities of the lurid, fragile and wild period that followed the dictatorship.
“The cage door was opened and we all got out,” she told the Guardian two years ago. “So, we had this new sense of freedom but we also had Eta setting bombs off, police persecuting students, ultra-right groups coming into bars with guns and singing [fascist anthem] Cara Al Sol. We were sick of all that and we thought of art as medicine, as a cure.”