In Captivating Animations, Nalini Malani Builds Feminist Visions of Justice

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Over the past 50 years, Nalini Malani has captivated audiences with her feminist mythological landscapes across animations and large-scale media installations. Born in 1946 in Karachi (which was then part of pre-partition India, and is now Pakistan), the artist had her early beginnings in the 1960s experimental film and video movement in India. There, she was a participant in Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW), the experimental artist workshop in Bombay (Mumbai) led by artist Akbar Padamsee.

Throughout her practice, Malani challenges narratives and foregrounds women’s rights, influenced by her experience with colonialism and migration following the partition of India. This is partly influenced by her experience watching many of her female peers get married and give up their artistic practices. “Many of my [female] colleagues in the art school were lost to matrimony,” she told Artsy. “I’m sorry to say that we lost really great artists to marriage.”

Earlier this year, Malani received the Distinguished Feminist Award at the acclaimed 111th Annual College Art Association. She now has two major museum exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic where audiences can experience her transfixing media work: “Crossing Boundaries” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, on view through August 20th, and “My Reality is Different” at the National Gallery, London, on view through June 11th. Both emphasize Malani’s rich process of remixing painful histories of oppression to provide new visions of feminist justice.

In Montreal, “Crossing Boundaries” comprises three separate large-scale installations: a nine-channel video installation, Can You Hear Me? (2018–20); a performance-based wall drawing, City of Desires—Crossing Boundaries (1992–2023); and a new video projected onto the façade of the museum’s Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, Ballad of a Woman (2023). In the latter piece, Malani crafts a tale of a murdered woman who erases the evidence of her killer’s crime from the afterlife, creating an endless looping story of the self-sacrificial woman. Like Malani’s other works, the video is punctuated by the bright colors and sharp ink outlines of the artist’s animations. These aesthetically alluring figurations highlight the juxtaposition: Offering audiences beautiful imagery helps them take in troubling history.

This bait and switch of aesthetics and content is poignantly felt in the nine-channel centerpiece video installation Can You Hear Me?, which features 88 animations Malani made on her iPad in response to the violent rape and death of an eight-year-old Indian girl at the hands of a group of men in 2018. The work collages different ideas with personal resonance to Malani, bringing mythological figures together with the artist’s thoughts, as well as fragments of texts on gender inequality and social injustice. “It made me wild [when I heard this],” she told Artsy. “I had to do something about it, and so I made these animations to remember her.”

Malani noted that real-life figures influence her other pieces, too, and are often reanimated in other works alongside her fictional characters, becoming part of a larger fantastical landscape in the artist’s mind. These appearances of both real and fictional characters across media works are Malani’s way of representing the “rabbit hole” of her thought process, and the convergence between reality and fiction where those borders are no longer easily defined, not unlike Alice’s journey through such a hole in Alice in Wonderland (1865).

In fact, a version of that Alice, grown up beyond the timeframe of Lewis Carroll’s novel, appears in Malani’s work, most notably in her 2005 painting series “Living in Alice Time.” “You would say that, coming from India, I’m using a text from Britain, but the thing is that Alice doesn’t belong to Britain anymore,” Malani explained. “There’s a critique of Alice [in my work] because as soon as the child became an adult, [the public] had little to do with her.” For Malani, working with the idea of the adult Alice honors the character’s personhood beyond her childlike wonder, and accounts for the aftermath of her traumatic experiences that plague her adult consciousness, something that society has very little room for: images and tales of survivors beyond in the aftermath of their trauma.

Meanwhile in London, “My Reality is Different” is the culmination of Malani’s fellowship at the National Gallery (where she was the first artist to receive this honor). For the show, she worked with select pieces from the permanent collections of the National Gallery in London and the Holburne Museum in Bath, to criticize how paintings from the colonial era erased how wealth was amassed through slave labor. “I said [to the museums], ‘If you let me have these paintings to work with, I am going to desecrate them,’ and that’s what I did,” she said.

She chose 25 paintings from both institutions, digitized their images, and created animations in which she draws on top of them. These additions, made with her finger on her iPad, emphasize small details—like a robe or silverware—through cropping, collaging, and markmaking, superimposed onto the original paintings. For Malini, these small details, as seen in classical paintings by artists like Jan van der Venne and Johann Zoffany, are demonstrative of wealth, which was often made through imports from plantations. “These issues are still relevant today. The stock market goes up, but the class that made that does not profit from it,” she said.

Animation, for Malani, is a way of working within a universal language that is accessible to all. “I’ve always wanted to work with the moving image. In India especially, people don’t walk into a gallery, nor do they walk into museums,” she said. “You don’t just want the elite to come. It’s too much of an ivory tower to [only] consider making artworks for that society.” Moving-image work allows Malani to make art for the public domain, where it can be open to general debate and dialogue, which she considers invaluable to her art practice.

With all these varied styles in her arsenal, Malani is still experimenting with crafting new images and tales to animate her universes of remixed realities, a practice she pursues restlessly: “There’s always a sense of dissatisfaction with the work,” she said. “And it doesn’t really go away, you just try and try…but that’s all I have to work with.”

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