Leo Coimbra is a collector. She collects big things like incredible paintings from her homeland, Brazil as well as from other Latin American countries and places where she has travelled with her Ambassador husband Fernando.
She also collects small things that can easily fit into glass bottles and jars. Those includes everything from pebbles, bits of wrapping paper and hippo poop to what she calls the ‘flotsam and jetsam’ she found on the beach at Watamu and images from exhibitions she had prior to the one that just closed at Nairobi National Museum.
“I’ve been collecting things since childhood,” recalls Leo referring to the miniature memorabilia that fills the glass bottles included in her first Kenyan exhibition entitled ‘In Vitro’ which in Latin literally means ‘in glass’. But for her, the term specifically refers to her life and the precious memories embodied in those small things contained in the jars.
“I collect ordinary things from everyday life that have significance to me,” she says.
For instance, one bottle contains ticket stubs from plays and films that she and Fernando watched while living in various cities, including one filled with receipts from trips with her family to Nairobi National Park. Others contain items recycled from her previous shows such as strips cut from posters and invitation cards that she made by hand. Still others feature her ‘Family album series’ containing bottles for her brothers, sisters and parents.
The glass bottles and jars are themselves memorabilia collected for nearly as long as she has been picking up things like seeds and tiny toys while growing up in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, her country’s young capital.
“I had over 1,000 glass bottles in my first ‘In Vitro’ show which I had in Brasilia in 2010 and which I left there. But in my Nairobi exhibition, I only used bottles and jars that I collected in Kenya and assembled into small installations,” she says.
Noting that for two of the installations, she bought glass and metal stands used by Kenyan street sellers of sausages and hard-boiled eggs.
Leo’s paintings are just as autobiographic as her installations and glass jars. “The exhibition was all about my life, but the paintings are more emotional. I do not think when I paint. I simply feel,” she says. “The bottles are more mental since I must think and decide which memories go in which bottles.”
Stressing the importance of painting in her life, Leo adds, “I paint because I have to. It’s the best way I know to be alive.”
Explaining that she paints to create a feeling of being at home and comfortable within herself, she says she was thrilled by the positive response her Museum exhibition received from literally thousands of visitors.
Leo only started painting in 1991 while living in Washington, DC. She describes herself as ‘self-taught’ as she never went to art school. In fact, many artists, but especially by the Dominican-born American painter, muralist and graphic designer, Aurelio Grisanty who was really her mentor, have inspired her.
“I assisted him in his studio, doing mundane things like washing his brushes. But in the process, I learned a lot [by osmosis] such that one day, he told me to ‘go home, set up a studio and paint’ because there was nothing more he could teach me.” So I did just that,” she says.
Her first exhibition was in 1994 in Quito, Ecuador. She has had many more since. Her Nairobi exhibition featured 68 paintings using multi-media such as canvas, paper and plates as well as magazine cutouts, wooden boxes, cowrie shells, red wrapping tape and Buddhist prayer flags.
Her paintings come in series, the first one being entitled ‘Fragments’. “It reflects the way I felt when I first came to Kenya and knew no one, didn’t speak the language [hers is Portuguese] and felt like my life was fragmented,” she recalls. “But once I began painting again, the healing process came quickly,” she adds.
‘Healing’ was actually one of the series represented at the Museum as were series on ‘Crossing’ boundaries, ‘Family’ and ‘Buddhist Prayer Flags’ among others.
Her interest in Buddhism was piqued while living in India. A triptych that expressed the spiritual processes of meditation that she practices every day best reflected that interest.
Currently, Leo is working one a new series entitled ‘Flesh and Bones’, all about aging. “It’s a process I have to come to terms with right now,” adds the 62-year-old artist.