The translator of pain


There is a pain—so utter—

It swallows substance up—

Then covers the Abyss with Trance—

So Memory can step


As one within a Swoon—

Goes safely—where an open eye—

Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.

                                                    — Emily Dickinson

Fabienne Francotte's works remind a viewer of this poem by Emily Dickinson, but in the opposite way. Looking at her paintings is like staring into that abyss of pain. What does suffering look like? What happens when memory cannot step around or across it? What happens when the veil of trance, with which we keep pain at bay, is lifted? What happens when we can no longer navigate pain safely as 'one within a swoon'?

You just need to take a look at Francotte's last exhibition in Sri Lanka to find out. Here, there is no way you can escape the pain. Called Still Life/Nature Morte, the exhibition is full of portraits: faces with downcast eyes, blurred mouths, outlines blacked out, and features disfigured. These are faces actively trying to suppress their thoughts. But then, their eyes give them away: eyes rooted deep inside grief in their souls.

The collection comes from Francotte's experience of working with mental asylum inmates, abuse victims and disabled children in Sri Lanka, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and troubled youth in Belgium for whom she organized creative workshops. "I have always been attracted to working with the leftovers in society, the people who nobody wants to take care of," Francotte says of the experience.


The portraits are done almost entirely in inky black, only dramatised by a pop of red here and there. But instead of adding brightness to the faces, the red instead highlights the gloom in their expressions. "I love ink. And for me, less is more," Francotte says of her limited color pallet. "But I love to use red because I think it is a forbidden color."

Those strokes of color seem to be made by someone who has been polishing their art all their lives. It is surprising to learn that that was not the case, and Francotte wandered into art late in her life. A professional ballet dancer until she was 19, Francotte then worked in advertising and marketing. Only at the age of 42 did she do an Arabic calligraphy course, allured by the beauty of Arabic script even though she could not read it. From the discipline of making those rigorous strokes, she started experimenting with more free-flowing art.

An explosion of feelings was to come from that self-taught artist. “I am late, that’s why I am in a hurry,” says the 63-year-old. Her inspiration to work with mental asylum comes from her relationship with her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her final years. “My mother could not speak to me coherently, and often did not recognize me. But I found that when I engaged in activities that did not require words, for example music, dance, etc, I could communicate with her,” she says. “Even without words, even when she didn’t recognize me, these sensations maintained a link between us.” From that experience was born a collection which she exhibited in her native Belgium, called the Language of Rapture.

The quest to explore these wordless sensations followed her in her future artistic endeavours. When she came to Sri Lanka in 2016, with her husband who was posted there for three years, she did not hesitate to work at the mental asylum. She chose to work with the women and adolescents in Sri Lanka's central mental asylum with more than 150,000 inmates. There she did not sing and dance like with her mother, but she took artworks which she asked the women to copy. "We did not talk about the cases of abuse which had brought them to the hospital, but they did make art. Even when they did not make art, they sat in a circle and talked, which became a social moment. When I asked the inmates what was the difference between me and other therapists they worked with, they said, 'individual attention,' and I was melting away," she remembers the mentally trying times.


Much of the work that came from these experiences is not beautiful in the traditional sense. But then, beauty is not Francotte's objective. "There is more grace in the non-beautiful," she says, adding that beauty delivers the standards we expect about looking beautiful, but grace doesn't follow that. "The difference between beauty and grace is the difference between heart and soul. Grace belongs to something that is hidden but that shines much more than the envelope. It's the essence of the human being," she says.

After first visiting Sri Lanka in 2016, Francotte now lives there permanently, and the reason is the same grace. "There are not many possibilities to cultivate beauty for the people of Sri Lanka who have suffered so much. Life is too hard. But they have a lot of dignity. That makes them look even more beautiful," she says.

Her last exhibition was an attempt to translate the same grace on different mediums, including included paintings, installations, embroideries, sculptures and drapes. One of the hardest pieces for her to work on was the ceramics of body parts. For example she had some sculptures of knee caps in the process of standing up, which elicited a strong emotional response from many viewers. "If you remain horizontal when you face trauma, you can't stand up. And in this world if you don’t stay vertical, you lose your strength, you lose your capacity. Bones don't lie. The pain is immediate. When people saw the installation, people were shaken," she remembers.

In a world of facts and figures where we hear of the numbers of sexually abused and raped all the time, there are fewer ways for people to actually feel what the victims go through. Francotte's work provides an intense, immersive path into the victim's psyche. "I wanted to invite people to feel sensations and not to translate what it is abuse," she says of the series. "When abuse and trauma happen, they remain. In a box. We don’t open it. But we can’t say it didn’t happen.  That's like suffering a second time, because we don't give a chance to those who are suffer and are stigmatised and labeled. We don't give them a chance to move on. We don't necessarily need to talk about it, but we need to acknowledge it."

Francotte brings a European sense of art to her work in South Asia, which is more about expression than aesthetics. "Art doesn't need to be beautiful. Art is a translation of what you see. So it's very personal. The feeling you get in front of my artwork is a sensation of a remote sense of pain. It doesn't have to be what I mean, but it connects with you, and becomes and international language of suffering," she says.

When Francotte was in Nepal in 2019, she also noticed many moments of suffering here, as is her wont. Francotte likens herself to a sponge, who absorbs not just feelings of others, but also of surroundings. Her observations translated into clay sculptures of hands and fingers, and custom-made postcards. The sculptures of hands happened when she was playing with clay which was given to her by sculptor Gopal Kalapremi, and thinking of the hands of deities she saw at Patan.

At Patan, after the earthquake demolished many traditional statues, some of the hands of wooden sculptures were collected and nailed to a wall, and each deity is offering something to humans – whether it is blessings or auspicious objects. But Francotte's hands are the opposite – the callused and knobby hands of ordinary people aged by work and time. "My art juxtaposes the sacred with the profane," Francotte says. "Alongside the hands of deities, viewers can see the hands I made, of ordinary people, which can show the years and the passing of time."

And her postcards, containing a variety of impressions that include statues, petals from the Garden of Dreams, dust and leaves, botanical gardens, embroidery and fabric, imprints of pieces of metal, and the borders of saris, among many other things, are another story altogether, an outcome of a hidden aspect of Francotte's prolific life. Ever since Francotte was 13, she has been keeping journals, "to record the good and bad things, and to make sense of the world," she says.

Read also: How art empowers Nepal’s women, Anita Bhetwal

She is never without a journal, and in fact during our interview, she flipped though the latest one – a small unlined notebook filled with her large, angular writings, drawings, expressions of people, photographs, visiting cards, a card of a Laundromat, and many other minutiae. After her lesson in calligraphy twenty years ago, she began writing her life story, and also putting bits and pieces on personalized postcards which she would send to friends and family. When she isn't making her artworks, she is still constantly writing in her journal and making these postcards, the latest of which she is exhibiting in Nepal.

Francotte's postcards are only the visible by-products of her constant and disciplined work ethic, a discipline instilled in her right since the days of ballet dancing. Especially in light of the French diarist and memoirist Annie Ernaux winning the latest Nobel prize for literature, Francotte's journals – 74 in total – seem like works of art in themselves. Francotte agrees that they come from her persistent need to express the profusion of feelings within her, from notes of a lonely evening to quotes from a book she is reading.

"There is such freedom in writing here," she says. However, she has not thought seriously of publishing them, as for her the journals are a way of documenting her life. "When I was 17, I had written 'I want to be an artist', in one of the journals. I never went back to it until I reread it in the COVID lockdown, but the intention was always there," she says. "It's always like that. The premises of my works today can be found in the journals of yesterday. They were works in progress, even though I couldn't see that then."

For example, Francotte turned to portraiture, which she calls 'the gateway to the souls of human beings', ten years after she began drawing and exhibiting. "I could not explain the attraction of portraits. But when I went back to my archives and notes I kept, I saw all these black and white portraits of people that were capturing these expressions. I could not see it then," she says, echoing many artists' feelings about the relationship between inspiration and output. "What is written remains. I can't explain how it works, but it works for me."

Francotte's collection of postcards and clay sculptures will be exhibited at Patan museum from 21-25 October.

Read more: Nepal’s history through art, Lisa Choegyal