Another milestone was her first substantial video installation, Remembering Toba Tek
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.
VIOLENCE AND POVERTY
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.
FROM PAKISTANTO INDIA AND PARIS
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.
TOWARDS A MATRIARCHAL SOCIETY
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...