Life mementos: Artist displays her memories ‘inside a bottle’

Brazilian artist Leo Coimbra's installation artworks, and paintings at the Nairobi National Museum. [Courtesy]

Brazilian visual artist Leo Coimbra grew vegetables in glass jars. When she visited Portugal nine years ago, she watched a documentary of a Portuguese painter Lourdes Castro who similarly grew vegetables in jars. “She would then put them inside the cabinets so that the roots can grow faster when the plant looks for light. I found that to be very poetic,” Ms Coimbra says.

Coimbra now incorporates glass jars for her installation art exhibition, which opened on December 1 and runs for the entire month at Creative Gallery, Nairobi National Museum.

She titled it In Vitro’ a Latin word that loosely translates to “life inside a bottle.” As defined, Leo puts life - her collection of souvenirs from different parts of the world - inside recycled jars.

The self-taught artist collected mementos for 15 years, and from around 15 countries. Coimbra collected pieces of small items she spotted in her visits like cultural tea, seeds, dreams, ropes, photographs of saints and heroes. She describes the storage of mementos in reusable jars as a representation of a narrative of survive and frailty of daily life.

In assemblage of jars, she traces her childhood by showcasing toys she received from her grandchildren. Coimbra did not grow up around toys and it is now that she gets to play with toys with her grandchildren. She collected some of the smallest toy animals to share for this exhibition.

She stores in some of the jars displayed at the gallery, seashells she spotted at the sandy beaches of Lamu. In addition, she exhibits ropes she found on the beach to bring focus to the plight of sea animals brought about by ocean garbage.

This is a sad memory she chooses to keep. “I propose to occupy and fertilise the space within reused glass containers. I wish to surprise, to provoke the curious glance, through the glass,” she emphasises.

Prayer Flags is an installation art piece of colourful fabrics kept in frames. In her visit to the Himalayas, Coimbra came across hanged prayer flags.

These are prayers believed to be written on flags hanged on the mountain, and nature is said to send the prayers to the universe for them to come to be answered.

“It builds on inspiration drawn from the Buddhist practice of allowing our prayers to be taken by the winds and absorbed by the forces of nature.

Here, art becomes an offering,” she says. In vitro presented paintings and collages too. ‘Fragments’ and ‘Crossing’ are abstract paintings which reflect on how the artist sees her life.

“I started to see my life as made up of many small pieces. I have had to put them together to survive.

All my life I have been at the crossroads and I am always waiting for the next moment, trying to survive.

Through ‘fragments’, my fractioned life and feelings can be read and interpreted in colours and form.

These fragments evoke windows, puzzle pieces or broken glass,” she says.

Coimbra’s first exhibition was in 1992 in Brazil. She has exhibited in New York, Washington, New Delhi, Quito, Lima, Mexico and several Brazilian cities.