Working alone from a studio in North London, Sophie de Oliveira Barata spends her days surrounded by body parts. Her desks are littered with plaster casts of arms and legs, and hands and feet which look startlingly lifelike. There are boxes crammed with scalpels, brushes and paints and samples of silicone in a plethora of skin tones. On one wall, a row of portraits features men and women wearing a striking series of limbs, from a blue floral leg to an arm wrapped in a green ceramic snake.
De Oliveira Barata is the founder of the Alternative Limb Project and since 2011, she has created realistic and alternative replacement limbs for amputees. A graduate of London’s University of the Arts, she studied special effects prosthetics for film and TV before working at a medical prosthetics provider for eight years, where she learned to sculpt skin for hands, toes and fingers. She had the idea for the project after working with a two-year-old child, Pollyanna, who would often request ambitious bespoke designs for a prosthetic leg, from one covered in pictures of family and friends to another with drawers to store pencils in.
“Pollyanna would come to me so excited about what she could have – she’d make little sketches and diagrams, and from a rehab perspective, I thought that was really interesting,” says de Oliveira Barata. “It gave her something in the process to look forward to….We’re used to being able to customise so many things now, that it makes sense to want to do it with something that’s such a big part of your life,” she adds.
De Oliveira Barata’s realistic limbs are made out of layers of thin, translucent silicone in varying skin tones, which are applied to a cast, cured in an oven, then peeled off and stretched over a hand-sculpted limb or pre-made prosthetic structure. Nails are also made from silicone, while veins, freckles and moles are painted on by hand.
Most of de Oliveira Barata’s clients are referred to her privately or via clinics, and she likes to meet with them at least twice: once to match skin tone and make a mould of their opposite limb, hand or foot (she likes to work from a mirror image), and again around halfway through the process so clients can see how their new limb is progressing. She is often asked to add details such as scars, moles or birthmarks, and has even taken hairs from the neck of a client to apply to some realistic toes.
“I think it’s really important for clients to be involved in the process (if they want to be),” says de Oliveira Barata. “Receiving a realistic limb is a very emotional experience, and I think it’s good to keep clients informed so that you can manage their expectations and allow them to have some input,” she believes.
Realistic limbs will never be a perfect match – “we are living creatures, so our skin tone and appearance is constantly changing,” says de Oliveira Barata – but her astonishing attention to detail ensures a very close fit. She will often ask clients to bring various pairs of shoes, so their casts can be adjusted to suit, and invites them to act as live models while finishing touches are applied. The whole process takes around a month, she says, and costs between £700 and £6,000.
Alternative limbs are considerably more expensive, starting at £1,000, and can take up to 2 3 six months to create. Since founding the studio, de Oliveira Barata has made some beautiful, intricate and bizarre designs, including an arm covered in feathers and jewels, a gadget hand complete with a torch and hollow finger in which to store matches, and a striking detachable cover for
a standard issue C-Leg, designed for an ex-serviceman who had half of his leg removed after stepping on an explosive. She’s even been asked to make a leg with a place to store fishing tackles and bait.
“Sometimes clients will come to me with a very specific concept, while others have no idea what they want – they’re just looking for something different and personal to them,” she says. In these cases, de Oliveira Barata asks clients to compile a moodboard of images to gauge their tastes and interests, before working with them to develop a prototype. While she works independently in her studio, she often collaborates with other specialists on complex projects or unusual materials, including 3D printers, artists and propmakers.
She has also worked on several limbs for amputee singer and model Viktoria Modesta, including one that was studded with Swarovski crystals for the Paralympic closing ceremony. Two more were made for a promo for Modesta’s track Prototype, made by Channel 4 as part of its Born Risky campaign (one was fitted with LEDs, the other was a glossy black spike).
De Oliveira Barata first contacted Modesta after spotting her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine and sent an email asking if she’d be interested in wearing an alternative limb. “Modesta had only modelled a few times showing she was an amputee – in most of her shoots, you’d never know – but she got back saying she’d love to explore different ideas. I had a limb structure made for us to play with, and we came up with the stereo leg [which featured speakers embedded in a cast resin structure embellished with studs and rhinestones].”
Some of Modesta’s limbs are based on the model’s own designs, others were thought up by de Oliveira Barata or Prototype director Saam Farahmand.
When de Oliveira Barata first discussed the Alternative Limb Project with amputees, she says many were put off by the idea. “A lot of people just thought it was a bit weird,” she says. One friend was particularly sceptical, but changed her mind after de Oliveira Barata persuaded her to wear a custom leg covered in lights.
“People would come up to her and say how cool it was, and they weren’t afraid to ask her about it, which she said was really refreshing. She didn’t want to wear it all the time – sometimes, you just want to walk down the street without people coming up to you, and you wouldn’t wear the same outfit every day – but she said it was nice to have the option,” she says.
Now, de Oliveira Barata is working on interactive limbs, and is keen to create ones which respond to their environment – to changes in temperature or air flows, for example. She is also sculpting a leg covered in laser-cut maps of destinations which have a personal significance to the wearer.
In the four years since she founded the Alternative Limb Project, she says she has noticed a shift in attitudes towards amputees, due in part to the number of servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with prosthetics, and the success of the Paralympic Games, but sadly, many amputees still feel embarrassed or ashamed of their replacements.
With her bespoke designs, however, de Oliveira Barata hopes she can encourage clients to wear their replacement limbs with pride. By teaming up with high profile amputees and mainstream media, she wants to encourage people to talk more openly about their differences, while removing some of the social stigma surrounding disability.
“I get a lot of messages from able and disabled people saying it’s a really inspiring project. A lot of clients I’ve worked with so far have said it’s really transformative in terms of how they’re viewed by strangers. By making something that’s beautiful or exciting to look at, you remove a barrier – people are more comfortable talking about it, and they don’t feel compelled to look away or avoid a conversation,” she adds.