Sophie De Oliveira Barata
The woman turning prosthetics into an art form
Sophie’s creative approach is changing the face of the prosthetic industry. Her designs allow amputees to celebrate their individuality with style, from crystal encrusted arms, to legs with built-in speakers, each piece is completely unique.
“It’s a bit of a mess I’m afraid,” she says. Sophie De Oliveira Barata leads us down a dimly lit corridor to her studio space. Large meter canvases lean against the walls left over from a public art trail the weekend before. We’ve read lots about Sophie’s work, The Alternative Limb Project and were eager to see the studio where all her creations come to life.
With four white washed walls and a row of windows on one side allowing light to penetrate the room it seems a fairly typical studio space, but its contents are anything but typical. Hanging on one wall is a mixture of tools and limbs and next to the screwdriver is a realistic foot. Underneath a hanging hand saw is an arm reaching up from the desktop. Above us we see the head and shoulders of a balding man with one eye. There are visual delights wherever we look. I spin round to see the soles of two realistic feet opened at the top with laces to tie them up, both resting neatly on a wooden step ladder. Then there are the more artistic pieces that catch our attention…the oriental styled blue and ivory leg with drawers in it or the elegant jeweled arm with realistic fingertips. Sophie notices our open mouths and curious eyes, smiles and says, “I’ve always been interested in tricking the eye and mixing fantasy with reality.”
Sophie’s background is in fine art but she gained her limb-making prowess from an early job creating prosthetics. While this didn’t allow her creativity to flow it did develop her detailed model-making skills. It was in her spare time that she explored her creative side, producing costume jewelry pieces for her and her friends to wear. After a while she was keen to harness the creative freedom of the costume pieces and combine that with the detailed skills learned from her day job. So she set about finding a person to build an alternative limb for. Viktoria Modesta was the ideal amputee, a model and singer who embraced and celebrated her individuality. The two met and Sophie set about creating a number of pieces for her, one of which she wore at the London 2012 Paralympic closing ceremony. A picture of Viktoria hangs framed in the studio wearing the limb. It’s a striking piece, fitted to Viktoria’s leg just below the knee socket. It’s full of rhinestones, shards of mirrored plastic and studded with Swarovski diamonds.
Viktoria’s limb was a talking point and it gained Sophie a lot of attention. Since that time she has created a number of alternative limbs, from a nature inspired flowered leg to a ‘Metal Gear Solid’ bionic arm for a man who lost his right arm in a train accident. Sophie said, “I’m really interested in pushing the boundaries and unlocking imagination, whether it’s mine or the person I’m working with. It’s also great to get the general public excited and hear them discuss ‘If I were an amputee what would I have?’”
Her work can be split into two areas, the realistic limbs and the alternative limbs. Sophie makes about six alternative limbs per year, most are privately funded and she will work directly with a client to explore the possibilities and ensure their personality is represented. She said, “There is a genuine need for realistic limbs so I’ll continue to produce them but I want to keep pushing the boundaries in my work with alternative limbs. The world is constantly changing and more and more amputees now see their limbs as accessories.” It is easy to see a future where people will own a number of limbs depending on the situation, the conservative realistic looking limb for work, right next to the flashy personally designed statement piece to wear on a night out. Sophie’s work is allowing people to express their individuality rather than hide it away.
In the world of prosthetics function has always won over fashion, but Sophie’s work now offers the opportunity to fuse functionality with personality. The alternative limbs Sophie creates are just that, they are as different as the people she makes them for. You can’t pigeon-hole her work, it travels from real to surreal and visits every stop in between. The creativity flows through each unique piece, from crystal encrusted arms to legs with built-in speakers. Her work celebrates individuality in its purest form and allows people to celebrate their differences in ways they never thought possible.