Filmed in black and white, accompanied by the drone sound of a film reel, Onanism presents a young woman lying alone on a striped blanket. She is dressed in a sleeveless shirt and loose pants; her long hair hangs down. Across multiple cuts, she interacts with a light-coloured bedsheet, which she twists, pulls, and wraps around her contorting figure. Nalini Malani captures her writhing from a variety of angles and distances. At times, her camera tightly frames a particular surface or feature, abstracting the woman’s body and its activity. At other moments, she focuses on the woman’s eyes.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Malani was a participant in the Vision Exchange Workshop, a centre for experimental art in Mumbai. She has stated that she was the only woman among its interdisciplinary artists. The work’s title, which refers to masturbation, is characteristic of her interest in addressing unspoken or taboo aspects of women’s lives. The title also calls attention to the viewer’s role as witness, even voyeur.
Nalini Malani (b.1946, British India) is a pioneer in video art. Her family’s experience of displacement during the 1947 Partition of India strongly influenced her early life and her later activism. Over her long and prolific career spanning film, installation, and painting, she has continually examined the ways political conflicts and social structures affect women and other marginalised communities.