Ano­ther mi­les­tone was her first sub­stan­tial vi­deo ins­tal­la­tion, Re­mem­be­ring To­ba Tek

Art Press - - DÉSENCHANTEMENT - Trans­la­tion, C. Pen­war­den

A pio­neer of per­for­mance, vi­deo and ins­tal­la­tion art in In­dia, Na­li­ni Ma­la­ni (born 1946) de­picts main­ly fe­male fi­gures, vic­tims of vio­lence, aban­do­ned, vic­tims of un­che­cked ur­ban growth. Through them, she confronts both an­ces­tral nar­ra­tives and contem­po­ra­ry his­to­ry and re­flects on the sur­vi­val of humanity. She is ex­hi­bi­ting at the Pom­pi­dou through Ja­nua­ry 8, 2018. Na­li­ni Ma­la­ni’s sha­dow plays are the cor­ners­tones of a rich and ri­go­rous bo­dy of work. Using a va­rie­ty of me­diums, they ar­ti­cu­late her po­li­ti­cal and fe­mi­nist po­si­tion. Her spell­bin­ding ins­tal­la­tions have fea­tu­red in ma­ny in­ter­na­tio­nal ex­hi­bi­tions and are held in the col­lec­tions of the Pom­pi­dou Cen­ter, MoMA New York and the Ki­ran Na­dar Mu­seum of Art in Del­hi, among others. Dra­wing on the Ka­li­ghat pain­ting of Ben­ga, they trans­pose a stri­king pro­fu­sion of forms, which she paints on ro­ta­ting trans­pa­rent cy­lin­ders, like ma­gic lan­terns. These su­per­im­po­sed images form an onei­ric vi­sion of a world full of mu­tant crea­tures and ani­mals from In­dian as well as Eu­ro­pean fables and myths.These images meld with the sha­dows of vie­wers, who are drawn in­to the nar­ra­tive space. An ins­tal­la­tion at Do­cu­men­ta in 2012, ins­pi­red by fe­mi­nist wri­ter Ch­ris­ta Wolf’s no­vel Cas­san­dra (1984)—it­self re­fe­ren­cing a poem by Faiz Ah­mad Faiz, “In Search of Va­ni­shed Blood”—cap­ti­va­ted vi­si­tors.


Re­mem­be­ring Mad Meg is the back­bone of the cur­rent Pom­pi­dou re­tros­pec­tive or­ga­ni­zed by So­phie Du­plaix. It com­bines vi­sions of girls and su­bal­tern wo­men, as des­cri­bed by ar­tist and theo­re­ti­cian Mieke Bal: “Young girls caught in a his­to­ry of vio­lence and po­ver­ty, one with a leg blas­ted off by a mine, ano­ther, Alice-like, skip­ping rope as an in­no­cent ver­sion of rei­te­ra­tion, a young ho­me­less girl or pro­tes­ter peeing in pu­blic space, si­gni­fying po­ver­ty but al­so re­cal­ling the pres­ti­gious pre­cedent of Rem­brandt. [...] Goya-like tor­ture and exe­cu­tion, a monster mor­phing in­to a wo­man, or the op­po­site […].” The ins­tal­la­tion takes its title from a pain­ting by Pie­ter Brue­gel the El­der, Dull Gret (Mad Meg, 1562), a kind of per­ver­ted cha­rac­ter who, in Ma­la­ni’s eyes, sym­bo­lizes one of the last hopes for sa­ving humanity. In other works she draws on the Me­dea and Cas­san­dra myths. Ho­we­ver, it is not so much wo­men’s so­cial role as the fe­mi­nine part of the world that Ma­la­ni wants to em­pha­size, so as “to rein­tro­duce,” she ex­plains, “male-do­mi­na­ted his­to­ry from a fe­male view­point.” A you­th­ful work from Ma­la­ni’s years as a student at the J. J. School of Art in Bom­bay,

Ona­nism (1969), ne­ver pre­vious­ly shown, at­tests both to the per­ma­nence of her fe­mi­nism and to her pio­nee­ring role in in­tro­du­cing film in­to the vi­sual arts. In this short black-and-white film shot in 16 mm, the ca­me­ra fol­lows a wo­man with long, loose hair, hol­ding a sheet bet­ween her legs, shud­de­ring convul­si­ve­ly. Evo­king fe­male plea­sure but al­so hys­te­ria and the stig­ma sur­roun­ding it, the film was re­jec­ted by the male ar­tists Ma­la­ni fre­quen­ted in her ear­ly days, in­clu­ding the pain­ter Ak­bar Pa­dam­see. He in­vi­ted her to take part in the Vi­sion Ex­change Work­shop, which played an in­cu­ba­ting role in the ar­tist’s fu­ture ci­ne­ma­to­gra­phic ex­pe­ri­ments. Na­li­ni Ma­la­ni came on­to the scene in Bom­bay at a time when In­dian art was still do­mi­na­ted by the male pain­ters of the Pro­gres­sive Ar­tists’ Group. In 1981, more than ten years la­ter, she was still the on­ly wo­man ar­tist to fea­ture in Place for People, the ma­ni­fes­to ex­hi­bi­tion by the Ba­ro­da art school. She was able to es­ta­blish her po­si­tion in a world that was till es­sen­tial­ly male. Ins­pi­red by the Air Gal­le­ry in New York, she tea­med up with sculp­tor Pilloo Po­ch­kha­na­wa­la to plan a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tu­ring on­ly In­dian wo­men ar­tists. Af­ter a per­iod of ma­te­rial dif­fi­cul­ty when Po­ch­kha­na­wa­la al­so died, she gave up this plan and, in 1987, star­ted ex­hi­bi­ting with a more li­mi­ted group of ar­tists (Ni­li­ma Sheikh, Ar­pi­ta Singh and Madh­vi Pa­rekh), no­ta­bly in the show Through the Loo­king Glass. Ma­la­ni was quick to move beyond the li­mits of a ge­ne­ra­tion of ar­tists who concen­tra­ted ex­clu­si­ve­ly on pain­ting. She used not on­ly this me­dium but al­so pho­to­gra­phy, ci­ne­ma and ins­tal­la­tion. Her first par­ti­ci­pa­to­ry ins­tal­la­tion, Al­ley­way, Lo­har Chawl (1991), confronts the po­pu­lar quar­ter of Lo­har Chawl, where she lives and works, with the to­ny neigh­bo­rhood in South Bom­bay that is home to the Che­mould Gal­le­ry. Com­pri­sing five sheets of pain­ted po­ly­es­ter and a few stones on the ground, the work jux­ta­poses the por­traits of a ho­me­less fa­mi­ly, a wor­king wo­man, an in­dus­trial por­ter, a ven­dor and a young man uri­na­ting in the street. Echoing their ma­ke­shift homes, the work it­self is in poor ma­te­rials. Ma­la­ni ex­ploits the trans­pa­ren­cy and see­ming fra­gi­li­ty of My­lar, a cheap po­ly­es­ter film that she has used in a good num­ber of other ins­tal­la­tions.


Singh (1998–99), which was concei­ved in res­ponse to In­dian nu­clear tes­ting at Po­kha­ran, not far from the bor­der with Pakistan. The title comes from a short sto­ry by Saa­dat Ha­san Man­to about the ab­surd ex­change of Hin­du and Mus­lim psy­chia­tric pa­tients car­ried out by hos­pi­tals at the time of Par­ti­tion. Dra­wing on ar­chive do­cu­ments, the ins­tal­la­tion evokes the vio­lence that ac­com­pa­nied the se­pa­ra­tion of the two coun­tries. Na­li­ni Ma­la­ni was born in Ka­ra­chi, in to­day’s Pakistan, in 1946, a year be­fore the in­de­pen­dence and par­ti­tion of Bri­tish In­dia. Her mo­ther was a Sikh, her fa­ther a theo­so­phist and free­ma­son. The fa­mi­ly took re­fuge in Kol­ka­ta and then in Bom­bay. This is a sto­ry Ma­la­ni tells in Ex­ca­va­ted Images (1997), work made on the blan­ket that the ar­tist’s grand­mo­ther used to make a bundle for her pos­ses­sions when fleeing from Ka­ra­chi. Por­traits of wo­men, a fa­mi­ly tree, but al­so news­pa­per ar­ticles about vio­lence in­flic­ted re­cent­ly on the Da­lits (un­tou­chables) all ap­pear on its sur­face. Man­to’s short sto­ry, which is a kind of leit­mo­tif in the ar­tist’s work, is prin­ted in En­glish, Hin­di and Ur­du, the three lan­guages most com­mon­ly spo­ken in North In­dia. When the work was pre­sen­ted in In­dia and Pakistan, vi­si­tors were in­vi­ted to pin on the dyed threads used by Hin­dus and Mus­lims.

Ho­we­ver, it was du­ring her stay in Pa­ris from 1970 to 1972 that Ma­la­ni real­ly de­ve­lo­ped her po­li­ti­cal ideas about the dis­pos­ses­sed. “Thanks to my student card,” she ex­plains, “I could at­tend any of the courses gi­ven in the ma­ny Pa­ri­sian ins­ti­tu­tions. This un­struc­tu­red per­iod be­came the ad­ven­ture of an in­tel­lec­tual ap­pren­ti­ce­ship and of the gro­wing po­li­ti­cal en­ga­ge­ment that made me what I am to­day.” In Pa­ris she at­ten­ded lec­tures by Noam Chom­sky and Claude Lé­viS­trauss, took part in the pu­blic events ini­tia­ted by Mi­chel Lei­ris, Jean-Paul Sartre and Si­mone de Beau­voir, and met Alain Res­nais, Jean-Luc Go­dard and Ch­ris Mar­ker at the Ci­né­ma­thèque Fran­çaise. “Each of these par­ti­ci­pa­tions,” she conti­nues, “nou­ri- shed a pro­found­ly po­li­ti­cal and hu­man mo­ti­va­tion, and pro­vi­ded me with ins­pi­ra­tion for the rest of my days. This po­li­ti­cal en­ga­ge­ment creates a state of mind that to­day people would call ‘cultu­ral ac­ti­vism’.” On re­tur­ning to Bom­bay, Ma­la­ni made the dip­tych Uto­pia (1969–76), which speaks of di­sen­chant­ment at the fai­lure of the mo­der- ni­za­tion cham­pio­ned by Ja­wa­rhar­lal Neh­ru. On one side is Dream Houses (1969), a co­lor ani­ma­tion film shot in 8 mm, and on the other the epo­ny­mous Uto­pia (1976), a bla­ckand-white film in 16 mm. In the for­mer, Ma­la­ni layers blocks of co­lor on an ar­chi­tec­tu­ral mo­del. Ins­pi­red by Bu­ck­mins­ter Ful­ler and his ar­chi­tect friend Charles Cor­rea, the film evokes the construc­tion of so­cial hou­sing by Neh­ru, but al­so the mo­der­nist ex­pe­ri­ments of the Bau­haus. In the se­cond, a young wo­man contem­plates the di­sen­chan­ted ur­ban land­scape where skys­cra­pers rub shoul­ders with slums. And over this we see the uto­pian images of the Dream Houses.


The myths re­fe­ren­ced by Ma­la­ni in her more recent works are al­so trans­po­sed on­to contem­po­ra­ry so­cie­ty. For the Ger­man play­wright Hei­ner Mül­ler, one of her se­mi­nal in­fluences, to whom she pays ho­mage in her ins­tal­la­tion Ham­let­ma­chine, Me­dea re­pre­sents the im­mi­grant wor­ker in contem­po­ra­ry Ger­man so­cie­ty. Li­ke­wise, as the Ger­man es­sayist An­dreas Huys­sen notes: “To vi­sua­lize hu­man suf­fe­ring and so­cial suf­fe­ring, past and present, in such a way that their re­pre­sen­ta­tion nou­rishes and sheds light on life, ra­ther than wal­lo­wing in a voyeu­ris­tic ti­tilla­tion or suc­cum­bing to fa­ta­lism in the face of my­thi­cal cycles of vio­lence—that, it seems to me, is the stri­ving that in­forms the re­mar­ka­bly co­herent whole for­med by the work of Na­li­ni Ma­la­ni since the 1970s.” Echoing the sha­dow thea­ters, the po­lyp­tych

All We Ima­gine as Light (2017) shows images and re­cords the words of to­day’s world. Re­fer­ring to the Kash­mi­ri poet Agha Sha­hid Ali, Ma­la­ni’s nar­ra­tive has no fixed star­ting point. In this play of co­lor and trans­pa­ren­cy we see dis­fi­gu­red fi­gures and bo­dies from ana­to­my books, with trails going from one pa­nel to ano­ther. El­sew­here, an em­brace bet­ween two men and a wo­man hol­ding a fe­male hye­na is ac­com­pa­nied by words from Agha Sha­hid Ali: “I am the one you have lost. My me­mo­ry is constant­ly in­ter­ve­ning in your sto­ry.” This is the fe­mi­nist world­thought that cha­rac­te­rizes Ma­la­ni’s work. For­ty-eight years af­ter Ona­nism, she of­fers her vi­sion of the world: “For me, un­ders­tan­ding the world from a fe­mi­nist pers­pec­tive is an es­sen­tial de­vice for a more ho­pe­ful fu­ture, if we want to achieve so­me­thing like hu­man pro­gress. […] Or, if I wan­ted to state it more dra­ma­ti­cal­ly, I think that we des­pe­ra­te­ly need to re­place the al­pha male with matriarchal so­cie­ties, if hu­man­kind wants to sur­vive the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry.” De­vi­ka Singh is an art cri­tic, his­to­rian and cu­ra­tor ba­sed in Pa­ris.

«The Job ». 1997. Sculp­ture vi­déo à écran unique, ani­ma­tion image par image, son, 10 mn. Pou­pée de chif­fons sur lit d’hô­pi­tal en mé­tal et mo­ni­teur. Construc­tion mé­tal­lique, 5 cloches en verre avec gants trans­pa­rents rem­plis des in­gré­dients de base d’un...

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