Master of visual narrative
“It is now time to pay close attention to female subjectivity if anything called progress is to be achieved.“ (Interview with H.U. Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones, 2008)
Nalini Malani (*1946 in Karachi) is a master of visual narrative who tells her stories with the help of very diverse artistic media: besides drawing, traditional glass painting, (murals), and painting, she raises her voice against religious fundamentalism and destructive, maniacal progress in video installations, sculptural, three-dimensional presentations, and shadow plays. She has been a working artist since the 1960s and is often described as a pioneer of experimental Indian art; she sees herself as a political artist and her work as a type of committed witness-bearing to contemporary politics. Her works are always specific and universal at the same time—a confrontation with the present and past, as well as an artistic search for the impulses that drive the individual’s deeds: fury, murder, guilt, impotence . . . all of the human shortcomings. InSplitting the Other (2007) she has found an image for this: the figure of a woman, the earth mother with an umbilical cord, at whose ends innocent newborns hang alongside monsters. It is not, however, the either/or, but the both/and.
With Unity in Diversity (2003) Malani reacted immediately to the pogroms, mass rapes, and acts of terror committed against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002: in this video, women of various ages form a tableau vivant based on a famous nineteenth-century painting, which represented the unification and equality of all ethnic groups in India. The old and new images keep mingling with each other and melting together. Suddenly, a child’s voice is heard, which flows into the visual sequence of an abortion. Three images are all superimposed on the shot: the painted image of unity, the tableau vivant, and the picture of medical instruments pushing into blood-smeared tissue. A central theme of Malani’s work is woman in Indian culture and the many types of violence used against them. Violence against women in India has many faces and involves terrible historical events, such as occurred during the separation of Pakistan and India. This division is of great personal import to Malani, since her family had to flee Karachi.
In the gloomy drawings of the Mutants series (1996-1997) she depicts multifaceted human sorrow and pain, and, referring to the powdered milk scandal, she once again addresses an historical event: in the 1980s India imported powdered milk from Chernobyl and distributed it among thousands of children, who suffered genetic damage as a consequence. Malani wants to confront; she is not inventing anything, even though this is not obvious when one first sees her opulent, mythical, fairy-tale-like visuals with the luminosity of Indian painting. Her works are not easy to decode, because they exceed conventional narrative and condense various cultural signs and references in a postmodernist way. She creates kaleidoscopic puzzles of paintings, creating interior scenes or layers.
Besides the Indian myths, which Malani naturally combines with Greek myths, she is also familiar with the writings of Berthold Brecht, Heiner Müller, and Christa Wolf, who also flow into her explorations of power, gender, and feminism. Malani lived in Paris for several years and has traveled all across Europe. Medea, Cassandra, Sita, Mother India, Mother Courage, and Alice (in Wonderland) blend together in her works, claiming a timeless, general validity and contemporaneity. The figure of Cassandra has a special significance in Malani’s body of work: she represents all women, as it were, who are excluded from society, but have the strength to continue striving bravely against all conventionality, in favor of a superior goal.
In Europe Malani is mainly known for her fourteen-part panel painting, Splitting the Other (2007), which was shown at the 2007 Venice Biennial. Many of her works of art, as well as Splitting the Other, feature a series of individual sequences, and thus have filmic qualities. Alluding to film, though, Malani has developed an form of her own in the meantime. Using choreographed sound and light, video projections, and painted, sometimes rotating Plexiglas funnels, which create motion and overlapping on the opposite images, Malani transforms her art space into a space for multi-media experiences. She is one of the most influential female artists in contemporary Indian art. The artistic director of the dOCUMENTA(13), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, has included Malani in the series of publications accompanying the event, producing an artist’s book (June 2012) and Notebook №023, Die Moral der Verweigerung / The Morality of Refusal , in which Malani engages in an artistic exploration of an essay by Arjun Appadurai.
May 3, 2012 Caroline Schilling