We are pleased to present new paintings by acclaimed Delhi-based artist Olivia Fraser (b. 1965, London) that delve into spirituality, belonging and transcendence. Melding the formal traditions of Indian miniature painting with repetitive meditative motifs, Fraser has created a distinct visual language that brings to life intangible spiritual concepts.
Fraser, whose work is in the collections of the Museum of Sacred Art, Brussels, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, has exhibited widely across South Asia where she has lived since 1989.
When she first arrived in Delhi, she naturally began painting from life, using watercolors to depict the monuments and people around her. “I was like a travel painter depicting the ‘other,’ ” she says. “I began as an outsider wanting to connect to India and soon found a way through learning the visual language of miniature painting as well the physical language of yoga.” These practices offered her an entry point into the culture that spoken language could not, and helped her cultivate a deep sense of belonging. They also led her to investigate a different method of looking. Instead of gazing outward to capture scenes around her, she began honing what she describes as “inner perception.”
Her most recent series of intricate, jewel-toned works explore this inward journey. Fraser was inspired by a previously untranslated circa eighteenth-century Sanskrit manual of yoga called the Gheranda Samhita. The text describes in vivid detail an imagined paradise which an enlightened yogi may reach through meditation. One extract describes a sacred landscape: “In every direction are kadamba trees with abundant flowers and it is ringed with a kadamba forest like a stockade, where the scents...of flowers perfume every quarter.” The text from the Gherandha Samhita then continues, mentioning all the senses: the scent of flowers (smell), the fruit trees (taste), bees buzzing and cuckoos calling (sound), all visualized (sight) by the yogi “steadying himself” (touch). The text has guided Fraser’s journey, both visually and artistically, echoing her meditation practice. All of the paintings in this exhibition relate in some way to this text. Temple II, 2022 for example, depicts trees laden with ripe mangoes–the mango tree associated with the sacred and wish-fulfillment in India. Scent of a Lotus, 2023, captures a swarm of bees in a mandala-like pattern diving toward the multi-petaled blossom.
In other works, Fraser focuses on parts of the human body, such as eyes, which for her reference the practice of darshan, the act of beholding a holy person or sacred object. She explores the idea that the act of looking can itself be a method of worship and a means of creating a powerful connection in a spiritual context. In Pilgrimage, 2023, feet adorned with lotuses reference Fraser’s own experience performing pilgrimages across India as well as the idea of a transcendent journey within the mind.
Working in the tradition of Indian miniature painting, Fraser uses brushes that end in a single hair allowing her to create exceptionally delicate forms. She first began exploring miniatures in the 1980s shortly after arriving in the country. After encountering Pichwai paintings—a form of religious artwork made using intricate designs often depicting scenes from the life of Lord Krishna—she joined a gurukul, a traditional miniature-painting studio, in Jaipur and then another in New Delhi where she studied under masters of the form. In Jaipur, she observed the artisans making their own pigments using kharia or chalk from surrounding cliffs, tree sap, and soot from oil lamps. She likewise learned to make pigments, crushing semi-precious stones such as malachite or lapis and grinding plants and earth, which she then bound with Arabic gum to create paint. Today, she continues to use these materials, and paints on handmade paper.
Fraser describes her process as an extension of her yogic meditative practice which involves visualizations of nature. To amplify the spiritual ideas she explores and allow viewers to experience respite from the physical world, she often incorporates hypnotic patterns inspired by Op Art. She describes the experience of encountering her works as putting your vision into a peaceful almost trance-like state.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Olivia Fraser (b. 1965, London) is a Delhi-based artist known for paintings incorporating intricate patterns, ancient iconography, and spiritual and philosophical themes. Her work is currently on view in Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniature Painting and Britain, 1600 to Now at the MK Gallery museum, Milton Keynes, just outside London.
Raised in the Scottish Highlands, Fraser completed a master’s degree in modern languages from the University of Oxford. She spent a year at Wimbledon College of Arts in London before settling in India in 1989.
Since 2005, she has trained in traditional miniature-painting studios in Jaipur and New Delhi. She follows in the footsteps of her ancestor James Baillie Fraser, the Scottish-born artist who famously painted India, its monuments and landscape in the early 1800s. Fraser’s admiration for nineteenth-century Jodhpuri Man Singh-period imagery, produced by the Nath yogis, inspired her to incorporate iconographic landscape elements in her work to symbolize one’s inner vision.
Fraser’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions around the world, including the Royal Drawing School, London; Museum of Sacred Art, Brussels; The Arts House, Singapore; China Art Museum, Shanghai; Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh; National Academy of Art, British Council and Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, New Delhi; City Palace, Jaipur; Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts, India; and Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre, Nepal. In 2015, her work was exhibited in Frontiers Reimagined at the 56th Venice Biennale. Her work is in public and private collections internationally, including the Museum of Sacred Art, Brussels, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.
In 2019, Fraser released the book A Journey Within, which documents her paintings over the last decade. Her art has been used on the cover of A Hundred Measures of Time: Tiruviruttam; Sacred Plants of India by Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam; The Secret Garland: Andal’s Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli translated by Archana Venkatesan; and A God at the Door by Tishani Doshi. She has also illustrated books for William Dalrymple, her husband, notably City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. Fraser teaches an annual miniature-painting course in Jaipur.
Oliva Fraser lives and works between New Delhi and London.