Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project reimagines prosthetics as works of art, while coaxing viewers and wearers alike to reconsider the limits of the human body.
By Heidi Mitchell
Photographed by Omkaar Kotedia
As published in GRAY magazine No. 59
The Alternative Limb Project was commissioned to create a train-themed limb (seen here on dancer Welly O’Brien) for the Head of Steam, Darlington Railway Museum in Darlington, England. The installation and performance piece The 20:45 to Lover’s Rest was dedicated to railway workers and passengers who suffered the loss of limbs while working and traveling on railways.
Imagine a person missing an arm. Or a leg. Or a hand. Perhaps you picture that person wearing a prosthetic—one that is flesh-toned to “blend” with their skin.
Artist Sophie de Oliveira Barata imagines something quite different. Although she has never personally required a prosthetic limb, the former design student, who studied at the London School of Fashion, has visualized endless ways to replace the body parts that extend from our torsos.
De Oliveira Barata’s passion for turning functional prosthetics into intricate works of art began when she was working the traditional British role of tea and coffee lady in a hospital near her school. There, she witnessed a crisis-management exercise, for which a makeup artist had created realistic-looking wounds. “It got me thinking about working in special effects,” recalls London-born de Oliveira Barata, who went on to hone that talent while pursuing a career in film.
Model Kelly Knox wears the Synchronised Arm, which uses internal electronics to take a reading of her pulse. The prosthetic’s wrist then ticks in time to Knox’s heartbeat, giving the design a kinetic element.
Eventually, she transitioned to a firm that fabricates traditional prosthetics, which she calls “the ultimate challenge” because mimicking the human body without camera tricks takes time, talent, and patience. During this time, de Oliveira Barata met a young girl who wanted to customize her prosthetic leg with cartoons, and the trained effects specialist welcomed the opportunity. “I’m a child at heart and I love to be playful and challenge people’s expectations and stereotypes,” de Oliveira Barata says.
The unique design opportunity spurred a new trajectory, and she eventually left the prosthetics firm to launch her own venture, the Alternative Limb Project, in 2011. Her mission: “to bring life and soul to a prosthetic, to highlight what’s there as opposed to what’s missing.”
Left: Commissioned for the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony, the Crystal Leg was designed by the Alternative Limb Project’s founder, Sophie de Oliveira Barata, with direction from British singer-songwriter, performance artist, and model Viktoria Modesta. The latter wore the Swarovski-crystal-encrusted leg during the ceremony. Right: A view of the in-progress, train-themed limb commissioned by the Head of Steam, Darlington Railway Museum in Darlington, England.
In 2012, de Oliveira Barata created three works for the Science Gallery London’s Spare Parts exhibition, which invited a diverse range of artists to create works using prosthetic limbs as their canvases. Around that time, de Oliveira Barata saw model Viktoria Modesta on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Hong Kong, with her prosthetic leg in full view. “I read about her story of struggle and of taking control of her body through amputation,” de Oliveira Barata says. “I thought she was bold, brave, and beautiful.”
Inspired, the artist contacted the model, and the pair collaborated on five limbs, ranging from the Spike—a fierce homage to power-dressing made of fiberglass, steel, and high-gloss lacquer—to the Stereo Leg, which is crafted from engine and stereo parts and embellished with chains, jewels, and crystals. Modesta’s wearing of the Swarovski-crystal-encrusted Crystal Leg at the 2012 Paralympics helped bring global attention to a crucial form of human augmentation that had historically received little recognition.
Like human bodies, no two of de Oliveira Barata’s pieces are the same; the artist has never been interested in churning out a slew of similar designs. Instead, her process is driven by each client: first, understanding his or her aesthetic and functional desires, then finding the right partners, artisans, materials, and platform (film, performance installation, photography) for each project. It can be a long journey, sometimes taking up to one year from brainstorming to completion. “Creating unique one-off pieces with a specific individual in mind is transformative,” de Oliveira Barata says. “Empowering the wearer and inspiring the wider community to challenge the norm and appreciate our differences is my mission.”