“When first encountering this body of work, I was immediately struck by her restless creativity and agility across different disciplines; the timelessness, relevance, and universality of her ideas; and the deep sense of empathy and genuine emotion embedded in her art.”, recollects Ulanda Blair, the curator of Moving Image at M+, Hong Kong. Blair directs this very statement to the works of – a pioneer in film, photography and video art, and the first Indian recipient of the Joan Miró Prize – Nalini Malani. A prolific cross – disciplinary artist, a humanist and a social activist, Nalini’s large scale installation art reiterates the inherent ethos of a human civilization, as she unpacks and reflects on histories of violence, oppression and socio-political injustices. The contemporary artist leverages on her visual language to create awareness and stand up for those that have been ignored, forgotten or marginalised by history. However, there is one common underlying focus that continues to be a highlight across her oeuvre – the position of women in a broader socio-political context.
Malani’s dynamic oeuvre has converted the floors of M+, Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture, into an animation chamber of dynamism, light and psychedelic colours. A deep delve into her practice, M+ has curated an exhibition that surveys through Malani’s artistic trajectory spanning over five decades. It forms a retrospective in its own right! There is a distinctive evolution in her practice as she embraces new technologies and innovative ways of working. Ulanda shares, “While her mediums and methods have changed significantly over this period, she has always maintained her distinctive approach to storytelling that combines personal narratives with motifs from folklore, classical literature, and mythology. For Nalini, these historic stories have the power to transcend the traumas of national divisions and address collective issues of social injustice.”
The first chapter of this enigmatic curation is displayed at ‘M+ The Studio’ and is titled ‘Vision in Motion’. This exhibit brings together three fantastical and multi-layered creations – each of which marks an era and a high point in Nalini’s artistic career. The first installation is Malani’s first stop-motion animation work titled Utopia (1969 – 1976). This piece marks an artistic critique of the utopian ambition of the post-colonial modernization project in the Nehruvian era. Chronologically showcased, the very next digital installation is Remembering Mad Meg (2007 – 2019) – inspired by the Flemish folktale of Dulle Griet or Mad Meg. Malani’s installation paints the imagery of Meg as a symbol of female strength and courage, a champion of humanity’s future in the face of obstruction and destruction.
Recalling the traditional shadow play in native Indian theatres, Malini incorporated techniques of light and shadow intermingling with reverse-painted rotating Mylar cylinders. This artwork is a classic genre of what Nalini terms ‘Video/ Shadow Play’. “Shadowy imagery is a hallmark of Nalini’s practice more broadly. Nalini uses shadows as a vehicle of memory, and to reflect on the long-term traces of historical trauma. Her work often uses light and darkness as inseparable companions that condition and depend on each other, such as the cycle of night and day. Shadows soften or obliterate some of her brightest images, as if to suggest that memories can engulf the things that are right before us, hidden in plain sight”, says Blair.
The last installation in the Vision in Motion is Malani’s recent creation – Can You Hear Me? (2018 – 2020). Hidden behind those graffiti art like renderings, scribbled forms, jerky handwritten notes, thought bubbles and distorted figures, is a scream of a girl who is violently raped. Encompassing 84 animations, this digital art captures the frantic, the extreme tensions, the terrifying trauma and the pulsating nervous energy. The animation mimics the feminine, often perceived as an object of exploitation and abuse through the male gaze.
An extension to the display at The Studio, the Indian artist premiered her new In Search of Vanished Blood (2012 – 2022), on the M+ Façade. This silent eight-and-a-half-minute video introduces a bold visual dialogue to Hong Kong’s expansive skyline. “Nalini’s newest work is shown as a silent, single-channel video on an enormous 110m-wide outdoor public screen, appealing to mass audiences on the city’s streets and harbour”, says Ulanda. It encapsulates coded imagery such as sign languages, cloudy skies, world maps, facial expressions and chronophotography stills of animal locomotion inspired by the 18th-century Photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
Commenting on the mechanics of the monumental footage, Ulanda shares, “The silent work opens with an excerpt from Dream Houses, her first stop-motion animation made in 1969, and then transitions to a layered sequence of intricate, handmade drawings and paintings. It also features old footage of Mishka Sinha, a former actress who collaborated with Nalini repeatedly in the early 2000s, and who here becomes the canvas for Nalini’s video projections. The final scene features footage sourced from the Imperial War Museum’s archive and shows World War I army soldiers using flags to practise semaphore signalling.” Infused with personal and real-world references, this enigmatic installation demands the viewers’ attention and a serious introspection into Malani’s longstanding investigation of the effects of war, violence and repression of women.
The last chapter of this collaboration is an Instagram takeover unveiling nine set of animations titled as ‘LIFE’ (2022). The animation series draws reference from the poem ‘The Elements Of Composition’ by Indian poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan. This virtual series will metaphorically represent the nature of life, death and after-life.
I pass through them as they pass through me taking and leaving.
– A.K. Ramanujan
The mixed media artist’s strong powerful voice demands to be heard, experienced and felt. Well averse to the art of politics and the politics of art, Malani’s visual language impressively adds to important conversations on global socio-political affairs. Her fine art is the change we want to see in society and we as viewers ought to contribute to Malani’s ongoing endeavours against injustice.