Monday, January 14, 2019

Of Egg Yolk And Pigments

Mauritian artist Arvin Ombika specialises in egg tempera paintings. It was the rage in the Early Renaissance period (14th to 16th century) of Europe

Photos: Arvin Ombika; Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ten-year-old Manisha Nair (name changed) looked at the egg in Mauritian artist Arvin Ombika’s hand and said, “Yuck, how will I break it?”

Arvin smiled and said, “I will help you.”

So, he gently broke open the egg inside a container. Manisha could see the yolk floating about.

The yolk is inside a sac,” says Arvin. “Now, I will give you a needle. And you should prick it.”

Manisha nodded, even as she pursed her lips and said, “It’s so smelly.” Her mother whispered to Arvin, “She does not like eggs at all.” Nevertheless, Manisha did it, the yolk leaked out and Arvin quickly mixed it with paint pigments. Then he added distilled water, to get rid of any dust particles. The result is called egg tempera. All the women participants carefully followed what Arvin was doing at the workshop which was held at the Kerala History Museum, at Kochi, recently.  

Egg tempera paintings were seen in the first century when the Egyptians would draw portraits on the Mummy. “The rest of the tomb was decorated in encaustic paint, which is composed of beeswax, resin and pigment,” says Arvin. “But the popularity of egg tempera reached its peak during the early Renaissance period (14 to 16th century).”

Some of the most famous works were Italian artist Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, Giotto Di Bondone’s ‘Madonna in Maesta’ and 'The Doni Tondo' by Michelangelo.   

Arvin himself works in egg tempera. At Kochi, he had brought along two works, 30 by 20 cms. It is of two men looking at each other. One is Arvin’s self-portrait, thick black beard, curly shoulder-length hair and hairy chest, while the other is a sideways view of his bespectacled friend Santanu Dutta, a Rabindra Sangeet musician from Kolkata, with both sporting golden halos.

They had met when Arvin was studying at Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan, while Santanu worked as an associate professor at the nearby Labpur College. “We are in a quest to know our identity,” says Arvin. “That’s what I wanted to convey through the work.”  

Asked the advantages of using egg tempera, Arvin says, “If it is used properly, there is a shine on the painting, a sort of satin finish. Which means that you do not need to use varnish.” Earlier, insects and cockroaches would attack the paintings. But now when cloves are put in the yolk, the smell lessens and the insects stay away.  

The drawback of egg tempera is that since the yolk dries quickly, you have to work very fast. Also, for large paintings, you need a lot of eggs. “So, it was not practically feasible,” says Arvin. But when oil was discovered in the 15th century, many artists opted for it. “It does not dry quickly, so you can take your time over the work you are doing,” he says.   

Arvin is a fifth-generation Indian in Mauritius. In the 18th century, one of his forefathers went as an indentured labourer from Arrah, Bihar. “Today, out of a population of 12 lakh, 70 per cent are of Indian origin,” he says. The rest comprise the French (Mauritius was a colonial outpost from 1715-1810), some Britishers, again because of colonialism (1810-1968), a few Chinese, who came as labourers, and Africans, who also came from Madagascar and Mozambique as slaves.

When he was in Class seven Arvin had to take compulsory art classes at the Adolphe De Plevitz State Secondary School, and fell in love with the subject. Later, he did his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI), which is affiliated to the University of Mauritius. It was there that he came across the egg tempera process. Thereafter, he secured an Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship to do his Masters at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, from 2015-2017.

Today, Arvin is a full-time artist. He has put up his works -- egg tempera, oil and acrylic  -- at exhibitions in Mauritius, Italy and Canada. But he does admit that being an artist in Mauritius is not easy. “For most artists, they need to have a job so that they can finance their art,” says Arvin. “But that is the case in many parts of the world.”

Arvin’s future plans include a doctorate in painting, hopefully, at a foreign university. “I am applying for scholarships, but I have no doubt that art is going to be my life,” says the 33-year-old. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South Indian editions and Delhi)

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