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Painting from the earth

  • Artist Olivia Fraser talks about the meditative quality of slow art made with locally sourced pigments and paper
  • In her works, she uses the iconography of Tantra as well as the optical and psychedelic art of the 1960s

Olivia Fraser’s ‘Constellation'
Olivia Fraser’s ‘Constellation'

When you enter the Nature Morte gallery in Neeti Bagh, Delhi, your eye is drawn immediately to a painting titled Darshan. Featuring a beautiful pair of eyes, with reflections of a lotus in each, the artwork has a certain luminosity, owing to the masterful way in which gold leaf has been used with stone pigments on handmade Sanganer paper. Darshan is one of the 18 works being shown at the gallery as part of artist Olivia Fraser’s solo exhibition, titled Amrit.

“Spiritual geometry" is how she describes her creations, in which she imagines her own versions of mandalas and yantras, using the iconography of the Tantra as well as the optical and psychedelic art of the 1960s, thus managing to bridge the painting styles of the East and West. “All explore essence, sensation and perception. I have sought to combine these perspectives by focusing on the iterative, pairing it down to the minimal and ultimately striving to reach for an essence while also pursuing the idea of movement," writes Fraser in the introduction to her book, A Journey Within, published in October by HarperCollins.

She has looked at two icons in this show—the lotus and the bee—as representing the twin poles of the passive and active. The lotus has, in fact, been a running thread through Fraser’s practice—from the blooms floating in fields of blue in Red Himalaya, shown in an earlier exhibition at Grosvenor Square, London, to the Breath series on display at this particular show. She believes that the motif aids her philosophy of creating “visual road maps for meditation"—something she has been working towards since 1989, when she settled in India with her husband, the historian and author William Dalrymple.

“I came here as an observer. It was a terrifying idea at first, to give up art school and come here. But once I reached India, I loved it. I learnt from observation and started painting from life," she says. It was also fascinating, in a way, to follow in the footsteps of her kinsman, James Baillie Fraser, who visited India nearly 200 years ago, in the 1800s, and commissioned local artists to paint people at work against stark white backgrounds. This collection came to be known as the famous Fraser Album and was the earliest hybrid form of painting—the coming together of East and West—something that has influenced Olivia greatly.

When she came to India, the artist would work extensively with watercolours, which she could simply stuff in her bag. “We were very itinerant in those days. There were no responsibilities and we didn’t have to be in one place," says Fraser. But then, in 2005, the couple decided to base themselves in Delhi with their children. From then on, Fraser gravitated towards traditional miniature and Nathdwara pichwai painting, visiting the studios of masters to observe and learn. “At the studio of Ajay Sharma, the master artist in Jaipur, I realized how one could use materials from your immediate surroundings, instead of working with plastic or throwaway paint tubes and paper sourced from across the globe," says Fraser. She recalls how Sharma would get a special sap from a tree outside his studio or collect soot from the oil lamp for his paintings. “I saw the use of kadia colour, this off-white chalky colour, which comes from the cliffs of the Aravallis, just around the corner," she reminisces.

So, she switched to local pigments and colours. Fraser soon began frequenting the pansari (grocery) shops, which “seemed straight out of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley", and had dozens of unnamed drawers holding the most extraordinary herbs, plants, rocks and seeds. She also began experimenting with stone pigments drawn from the semi-precious stones used extensively in Jaipur’s gem industry. “The dark grey that you see on the cover of my book comes from a lovely rock called ranga, which sparkles when you fine-grind it. I also use the pigment drawn from cinnabar, and layers upon layers of the indigo," she adds. Fraser’s friends in the gem industry help her with off-cuts of things that can’t be used, like bits of misshapen, off-coloured malachite for instance. “A painter can use these. That aids to the tactility of my practice. Also, it forges such a connection with the earth—whatever I am painting comes from it. It makes you feel one with nature," she says.

For her, the slow process of creation adds to the meditative quality of her practice. “Different processes go into creating something that aspires to ultimately look so minimalist," she says. Fraser now mostly uses paper made in Sanganer, doing all the initial work on butter paper. Everything is handmade—even the carbon paper. “Burnishing the stone pigments heats up the paper. The process helps in flattening and fusing the pigments," she explains.

She adores the ephemeral quality that these pigments add to her work—the glint and sparkle in her paintings changes with shifts in light and a shift in the position of the viewer. She loves using the gileri (squirrel) brush, which has one tiny hair and a curved ending. “It has a natural way of making a perfect circle. It’s really quite extraordinary. It’s about letting your materials lead you and about going with the flow. The process has been really quite transformative for me," says Fraser.

Amrit can be viewed at Nature Morte, Neeti Bagh, Delhi, till 30 November.

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