KNORKE LEAF: BOLIVIAN FEMALE STREET ARTIST IN LA PAZ
Upon my stay in Asunción more than six months ago, I had the great honor to interview one of the first street artists of Paraguay, Oz Montanía. Now, in La Paz, I’ve had the immense honor to encounter and interview one of the very first and still rare female street artists of Bolivia: Norka aka Knorke Leaf. I met her as she was putting up an exhibition at the Alliance Française.
Norke, please introduce yourself
I’m a 31-year-old Master of Fine Arts, graduated from the public University of La Paz. My academic specialization is engraving, yet as a balance, my other passion has for five years now been urban art.
During the past five years you’ve made quite a name within street and urban art both in Bolivia and in other countries. How did it all begin?
It all started in 2012 at the Night of the Museums. It’s an event which is usually organized in the middle of the winter in La Paz, and when all museums are free to visit. That night, I accompanied a friend of mine to the Casa de la Cultura (the House of Culture), where she was supposed to do a work on recycling.
As I was there without anything in particular to do myself, the people asked me whether I could paint a mural on one of the walls. I had never done one in my life, yet decided to go for it. After having painted for a while, I heard people applauding behind me. I turned around intrigued by what they were applauding for and was amazed to see that they were applauding at me! That’s when I really felt the power of urban art. That just doesn’t happen in a normal gallery surrounding.
Later the same year, I took part in an urban art competition organized by the Spanish Institution. I wasn’t going to participate in it, but a few friends of mine talked me over. As it so happens, I won the competition and that’s when the snowball effect really started.
What were the challenges for you in the beginning?
The biggest challenge was for sure overcoming the fear of painting. If you’re from an upper middle-class family like myself, even getting your hands on sprays is a mission! If you’re from a villa (a poorer neighborhood), where gangs and life on the street are part of the everyday, sprays are easier to come by. At first, I painted with paint and a brush – a slow technique compared to spray. Nowadays I do both, depending on the work.
Another thing that was hard for me, is that as an engraver I’m a perfectionist. Yet, with street art, there’s just often not enough time to scribble on little details or correct errors. Therefore, you have to learn to just let go. If you paint with spray, you have to let the moment flow.
What is it like to be a female in such a traditionally male environment?
Well, it’s not always easy. It’s a fact that the urban art scene is quite bro-oriented and women are not always considered peers. Yet, there are also people in the scene who give you double the support because you’re a woman.
When I had just recently started in 2013, I was contacted by a Chile-based crew called STGO Undercrew, which is the home crew of such artists as Fisek, Saile and Hes. They invited me to go with them to Denmark to paint, because they needed people from exotic countries to join the project. They had no idea I was a woman, and when they found out, they were quite surprised. However, being a Bolivian female street artist definitely added up to the exotic flair they were looking for!
In many ways that trip was a real crash course for me. I was the only female within seven men and the only person who didn’t have a 20-year-long experience in street art. I had never held a spray can in my hand before and was super slow. Gladly, some of the guys were really helpful towards me.
Are there other women street artists in Bolivia?
When I began, there were nearly none. Nowadays there are a few more, but there’s still not a female crew to call to and go: “hey, let’s go paint today!”. That’s something I wish for in the future. It’s just a different feeling with men and women, and sometimes an all-female surrounding can be incredibly powerful and inspiring.
You went to Denmark with STGO Undercrew. Have you also traveled to other places?
Yes, I have. Nowadays I get invited to paint in various Bolivian cities, but also internationally. Like I said, it’s really a snowball effect – the more you get invited, the more people hear about you and invite you to other places. I’ve actually also been to Denmark twice now. The second time was to a women’s urban art meeting, which was quite different from the first happening I attended there. The spirit with women is just different.
What about nowadays, do you live from your art?
Yes, gladly I do. My art is political, yet the pieces I do are mostly legal and often commissioned. I don’t live only on street art though, but also on engravings and illustrations for children’s books and such.
How I met Knorke Leaf?
When reaching La Paz, I reached out to Oz Montanía to ask him, whether he had some contacts in Bolivia. Through him, I got the contact details for Norka, and in only two hours we already met. I must add here that it’s very rare to meet a person with so much brightness and shine in her being! Truly a wonderful and sweet person with an open heart.
Photos: ©Knorke Leaf and Strangerless