Interview with Leka Mendes, now on Umbigo’s cover of the month

Her fascination with alchemy, archaeology, astronomy and travelling merges the cosmos and the earth. For Leka Mendes, the world is a source of attraction and awe. She explores celestial events, geology, “natural disasters” and the photographic element in a work that reflects all these traits. An artist-poet who dreams and experiments, she enjoys the process more than the outcome. However, anyone who believes that the destruction she points out and the waste she turns into pessimism (even if it is a reflection of human actions) is misled; this is a way of gazing at the sky, finding a way to the stars through the rubble.

In her interview for Umbigo’s November issue, Leka Mendes confirms – just as Saramago once taught us – that the mirror and dreams are similar, that they are the image of humankind in front of itself. And we always have time to transform both. 

There are several elements often to be found in your work: the sky, the stars, the planets, the cosmos. Where do Leka Mendes’ realms come from?

I suppose I have always been captivated by the sky and the cosmos. I find them an incredible mystery. As a little girl, I remember hanging out with my uncle and having him teach me about the constellations. When I was getting my first jobs, I was already looking for out-of-the-way locations where I could observe and photograph the sky, and I did plenty of research into celestial happenings. Geology and “natural disasters” also featured heavily in my research, and I even studied the origin of the word “disaster” (ill-starred, which was usually connected to a comet and meant harm), connecting the sky to these catastrophes that I had already studied. On that note, I must mention my latest addiction: Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, a documentary directed by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer.

Indeed! If something defines you more than the cosmos, then it’s the geological flair of discovery. We may assume that you straddle the line between expedition, archaeology, photographic technique and, of course, the obvious artistic side of transformation. How do you define yourself with a body of work that echoes all these qualities? 

As far as I’m concerned, one of the best parts of being an artist is getting to experiment with these other occupations without having to be right or deliver a result. When I was a teenager and was already photographing/filming with analogue cameras, I imagined that I would be a documentary filmmaker on expeditions, following teams searching for hidden cities in Central and South America. I think my way of working is somewhat like fulfilling that dream, as it seems I’m always on an expedition. In the past, I took longer cross-country trips, to Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador and Iceland; later, with the studio, the expeditions turned more into research, studying the lives of naturalists and explorers such as Darwin, Alexander Von Humboldt, Fernão de Magalhães… 

Rather than the names you work with as references, can we understand your personal history and experiences through your creations?

I may not be so obvious when you look at my work, but there is plenty of myself in it. Firstly, the way I live and think about being in the world is there, which is where my biggest creative source comes from: how to relate to nature, inhabiting, the house, the city, technology, waste, litter… Things that bother me and things that please me. I believe that every body of work is about what we experience, either because of what I’m currently interested in, because of research, or even because of personal issues. An example is the series Desastres, where I either buried, sank or tried to provide support for a series of houses, only realising later that it was connected to my own process of separation.

These days, I work most with collected objects and waste materials, such as fabric and plastic, as my biggest current pet peeve is the rubbish we produce. 

That’s actually easy to notice, since we often see in your pieces landscapes created from the waste of what’s left of the world and our actions. Does this search for and morphing of past remains embody an environmental message?

These days we can hardly stop thinking about waste and disposal, as well as the problem we have with rubbish and, above all, plastic material that has polluted everything from the sea to the land and our bodies. I’m quite concerned about this. I recognise that what I do is too little to fix the situation or try to convey a message, but it is that part of our experience that emerges in my work. There are plenty of objects that already stand out in the world that could be reused, but there are also lots of waste products that we could make use of. One example is my studio neighbours, an upholstery factory where I collect the canvas for the pieces I’m currently working on, and also a carpenter where I collect leftover wood and pieces that have been damaged. 

I know you are a professional photographer, something that may explain why photography is the starting point for your creations. Nevertheless, and like what you’ve just shared, you do break away from the typical photographic image and its medium. You go beyond the traditional, in different directions. What prompted this experimentation? 

I have always wanted to experiment through the process, I used to do it with film, the method of photographing and processing, and with time I started to further deconstruct this procedure, considering other questions regarding photography and also blending thinking with other techniques. My Post-revealed series is an excellent example of this, with the issue of the naturalists, the connection with changing themes in what was painted; and, in other series, there is a connection with printmaking, where I print with rubble on the fabric, as if it were a negative and a matrix. My current work, as well as sunlight, uses bleach as a process of revealing/unveiling.

Speaking precisely of the Pós-revelado series, as in the Antropocênicas and Antropoceno ones, the landscapes blend together. Which one would you say is predominant for you: the natural or the constructed? 

The natural and the constructed are tightly bound together in my research. Since I studied architecture, the issue of shelter/home has always been present, and, during these journeys, I have noticed the degree to which human beings have affected the landscape. I think this problem is present in all these series, both in the collection of rubble in Antropoceno – which I see as a “fossil” of current times – and in Antropocênicas, where there is a kind of narrative of the material cycles between the natural and the industrialised/technological; and also, in Pós-revelado, where I introduce environments built with some vegetation to make them look like a natural place, imitating another site, such as dinosaur parks, beaches and artificial lagoons… There is always the question of exploiting the earth’s geology in all of these.

You have just held the Circum-navegação exhibition at Appleton, in Lisbon, where we found – to quote Vera Appleton – “the usual fabrics that you cut out, tamper with and turn into sculpture-drawings.” Tell me a bit about that experience.

I was not planning to bring anything ready-made to Appleton’s residency, but, as I started researching the navigators, I recognised this relationship with an international residency, something unusual in terms of our traditional production place. As I work with collections, and I had no idea what I would find in Lisbon, I decided to bring ready-made bases for these fabrics, collages of canvas scraps that I make before intervening in the pieces. I brought these bases as if they were my “land in sight” side, where I kept the land known and then went out to sea, into the mystery of the open sea, receptive to what I would find in the “foreign land”. Finally, I considered this thought, which inspired the whole exhibition, to be very productive. I have to give Vera Appleton the credit for the sculpture-drawings in particular, as I have never been able to define these works so well.

Having mentioned the seascape, where do you imagine you’ll be heading next?

My last two exhibitions were titled before the works, and I think the next one may already have a name. Through all this research into sailing, and talking to Zé Diogo, Vera’s husband, who is also a sailor, the name popped up. He told me that what I used to call “land in sight” is the port side, to the left of the boat’s rhumb line, which comes from the way the ships travelled down the Atlantic, keeping the African coast on the left side of the land. I believe this direction has already generated a favourable wind and made me start researching the jute fabrics here in Lisbon, the subject of a new investigation-exploration, so perhaps soon I can sail back to show them on land.

Apart from the fact that the port side is the heart side, it symbolises all the affection that went into the residency and exhibition at Appleton, marking the start of the exchange between Appleton and Projeto Fidalga, whose courses I have attended since 2011 and which has been essential to my artistic practice, under the guidance of Sandra Cinto and Albano Afonso.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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