Chocolate wrappers and Swarovski crystals — two elements as unlike each other as possible; the one has almost no value once the chocolate it contains is consumed and the other is very pricey. Yet, somehow, both find place next to each other in Olaf van Cleef’s unique works of art.

A counsellor to high-end jewellery brand Cartier, van Cleef’s love of jewels shines through in his artwork. That includes the use of pointillism, a technique involving painstaking attention to detail when crafting delicate jewellery.

But, chocolate wrapper? “I am inspired by everything I see,” he says, “If I see a shiny piece of paper on the street, a chocolate wrapper someone has dropped, I pocket it… and I use it!”

In love with India, the artist also finds inspiration in its gods and goddesses, Mughal miniatures and sceneries.

Timed with the festive season in India, he and Chennai-based artist Asma Menon collaborated on a work titled ‘You and me’, on view recently at Chennai’s Taj Coromandel. Asma worked on the initial stages of the painting while van Cleef gave it his trademark touches. Asma’s work is characterised by the use of bright colours and traditional motifs such as a parrot’s beak, coupled with a striking originality, as seen from a print of the original painting she sent to van Cleef. A woman’s shapely leg peeks out from under this mythical bird’s wing, and from its tail rises a ten-headed snake, in a tribute to Ravana, each head shaped like a heart and with a purple mouth.

And to the white spaces she left on the canvas, van Cleef added his trademark crystals and other shiny embellishments. The ten-headed snake now has eyes, and red, purple and blue tongues, and the background glitters and shines magically.

Van Cleef’s creations are usually characterised by pastel shades, and adorned with Swarovski crystals and coloured chocolate-wrappers cut into tiny, millimetre-sized squares. The intense detailing appears daunting; van Cleef says he works best in the early hours of the day and it takes him about 150-200 hours to finish a single piece.

The shiny additions lend a delicate sparkle, without overpowering or distracting from the larger picture. The Swarovski crystals appear perfect for the jewellery adorning Indian deities.

Proceeds from the sale of their joint work will go to the Pondy Citizen’s Active Network (PondyCAN), a charitable organisation working to preserve Pondicherry’s natural heritage. While Asma grew up in nearby Chennai, van Cleef’s fondness for Pondicherry was acquired over the years. He recently opened the Van Cleef Hall, a centre for art, near the city, as a platform for upcoming artists and other cultural activity.

Both artists hope this collaboration will prove to be the first of many more to come.

(This article was published on November 15, 2012)
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