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15 Dec 2021 / by Doryun Chong, Olivia Chow

Nalini Malani: Fifty Years of Experimental Animation

Photograph showing eight Mylar cylinders with various figures painted on them. A bright light shines from near the centre of the frame. Projections are visible on the back wall.

Detail of Remembering Mad Meg (2007–2019). © Nalini Malani; M+, Hong Kong

The recently opened solo exhibition Vision in Motion presents the fantastical and multifaceted works of video art pioneer Nalini Malani. Born in Karachi into a multi-religious household in 1946—a year before the violent partition of British India into India and Pakistan—Malani spent her formative years in Mumbai witnessing India’s transformation. Below, Doryun Chong (Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator) and Olivia Chow (Assistant Curator, Visual Art) trace how the three moving image works in this exhibition illustrate key points in Malani’s ever-evolving practice and her methodology of layering metaphors and historical references to probe larger social issues, particularly those related to racial and ethnic tensions and violence against women and the dispossessed.

Visions of an Urban Utopia

First developed in 1969, then expanded in 1976, Utopia is a two-channel work comprising a side-by-side projection of films that Malani produced at distinct moments in her career. She created the first film, Dream Houses (1969), during her time at Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW)—an art space founded by modernist painter Akbar Padamsee and supported by a fellowship established by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. For Malani, the programme was an encouraging and open space that represented boundless possibilities for working with new mediums and technologies. It was here that she came across Indian architect Charles Correa and American thinker Buckminster Fuller’s vision for a new type of social and vernacular architecture that prioritised the needs of the people. Inspired by their idea of emancipation through design, and the ideas of the Hungarian-born, Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy, Malani created Dream Houses, a stop-motion animation of abstract colourful shapes suggesting a birds-eye-view of a utopian city.

The film visually represents her hopes for a different kind of modern India—a society that provides social housing for those in need of a secure, affordable home. To create the work, which took over two months to complete, Malani first built a miniature city in cardboard and photographed it using an 8mm-film camera while illuminating the city from different angles. She then converted these images into large negatives on acetate and re-photographed them using colour filters. Carefully reversing and re-exposing the film in her camera, she generated multicoloured superimpositions. For the artist, this experimentation with abstraction was a personal approach to examining India’s modernist architectural forms and nation-building strategy.

Photograph showing two side-by-side projections. The projection on the left is a monochrome still of half of a woman's face, facing the camera. The projection on the right is an abstract, geometrical model of blue and red building blocks.

Installation view of Utopia (1969–1976) at Nalini Malani: Vision in Motion

Malani’s interest in filmmaking deepened during her time in Paris, where she lived from 1970 to 1972 thanks to a scholarship. She describes this period as the ‘university of life’. There, she met filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and multimedia artist Chris Marker, among others. She attended lectures by influential thinkers and figures such as Simone de Beauvoir, Yasser Arafat, Michel Leiris, and Noam Chomsky, feeding her passion for political philosophy and contemporary thought.

With these insights, she returned to India to begin a project for raising awareness of underprivileged communities in northern Mumbai, but was struck by the rising political tensions and religious conflicts in her country. Deeply influenced by the impact this had on her homeland, Malani created a black-and-white film to juxtapose with Dream Houses, completing the double projection Utopia in 1976. In the second film, a young female figure, looking at an urban sprawl out of her window, contemplates the unrealised city in Dream Houses. Created seven years apart, the pair of films portrays the artist’s poignant reflection on the changing social circumstances of India.

Shadow, Erasure, and National Trauma

Malani’s practice continued to evolve in subsequent years, and in 1992, it underwent a pivotal shift catalysed by shocking, religiously motivated violence and the onslaught of communal riots brought by the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya, India. When unpacking national trauma and the agony of India’s religious and political conflicts, Malani often refers to this historic event. In the early 1990s, she sought new methods of art-making that would connect her to her surroundings and provide broader access points for those commonly excluded from art spaces.

Breaking away from the two-dimensional pictorial frame, she started to make all-encompassing charcoal wall drawings in the gallery. With her bare fingers, she created an archaeology of marks and traces made with charcoal, partially wiping away her lines, and then drawing over the traces. This erasure technique inspired her to transform her drawings into stop-motion animations. She also incorporated this technique of erasure in the format she calls Erasure Performance, in which the entire wall drawing is wiped out on the last day of the exhibition to evoke a sense of loss and disappearance.

Photograph showing the interior of a Mylar cylinder painted with an image of a woman with a sword, a skeletal goat, and a red sphere.

Detail of Remembering Mad Meg (2007–2019)

In her search for ways to exhibit her works outside of traditional exhibition spaces, her practice became increasingly interdisciplinary and spilled into theatres and public places. She collaborated with actors and directors on theatre adaptations, one of which led to a series of stop-motion animations and zoetropes on Mylar. This later developed into one of Malani’s most iconic forms of installation, which she terms Video/Shadow Play.

Video/Shadow Play translates Malani's experiences in animation and theatre into a spatial and sensory experience with videos projected on rotating, reverse-painted Mylar cylinders, which are also illuminated by spotlights and accompanied by sound. The unsynchronised videos and shadows cast on the walls exist in an endless loop, like a Buddhist prayer wheel, allowing the work to take over the exhibition space and engulf the viewer within its audio-visual environment.

Malani’s third Video/Shadow Play, Remembering Mad Meg (2007–2019), reclaims the titular character of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Mad Meg (1563), currently in the collection of Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp, depicting the fearless giantess from Flemish folklore leading an army of women to pillage at the mouth of Hell.

Photograph showing a room with projections on each of the walls. Several Mylar cylinders are hanging from the ceiling with lights glowing from within.

Installation view of Remembering Mad Meg (2007–2019) at Nalini Malani: Vision in Motion

As Malani has said, ‘Mad Meg fell in line with my own obsession with the characters from mythology, which have even today a relevance.’ The installation features Mad Meg’s fearsome character with dispossessed women struggling in a cycle of poverty and oppression, illustrating a collective sense of fury against the global epidemic of violence against women. Also appearing throughout the animations are recurring scenes of young girls caught in a war, and the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who here represents hope and curiosity. Like many of the recognisable characters that emerge in Malani’s work, these subjects provide a familiar entry point for viewers who find themselves absorbed inside a kaleidoscopically unfolding animation.

iPad Erasures and Newsfeed Reflections

In 2017, Malani turned to social media as a way to engage with the younger generation, marking another critical moment in her practice. She began creating one-minute animations on her iPad and uploading them onto her Instagram account (@nalinimalani). The digital format allowed her to work quickly with her fingers and easily draw and erase the images to create stop-motion films. Talking about this series, she notes, ‘My digital animation on Instagram is free. Anybody can repost it. That’s how it started. I made it like a notebook series in the public domain.’ They are candid, personal reflections on everyday news, sometimes informed by literature and philosophy.

Later, Malani began to exhibit these works as multiple overlapping projections across several walls, a format she refers to as the Animation Chamber. These immersive pieces echo the way her fleeting and fragmented thoughts sometimes ricochet in her mind.

Photograph showing a dark room with a grid of eight projections on the wall. Each shows various human-like figures, scribbles, and blotches of white, beige, black, red, and blue.

Installation view of Can You Hear Me? (2018–2020) at Nalini Malani: Vision in Motion

Can You Hear Me? (2018–2020), Malani’s first Animation Chamber, was prompted by the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in 2018 in Kashmir valley, a historically contested site that exposes the religious and political fault lines of India. In a series of animations and accompanying sound bites, the nine-channel installation not only evokes the tidal wave of emotions Malani felt at the time, but also represents the chaotic state of the world in general today. Scenes from Francisco de Goya’s print series The Disasters of War (1810–1820) and images of Alice in Wonderland, this time portrayed as a young Muslim girl, flicker across the walls, along with fragments of texts by writers from a wide range of periods and contexts such as Marcel Proust, George Orwell, and Adrienne Rich.

Each animation is short but powerful. They play rapidly—almost too quickly for audiences to fully grasp what is happening. Together, the animations reveal that the injustices and sufferings that inundate our newsfeeds today are not entirely new or unique, but are a repetitive cycle of agonising and familiar tales.

Photograph showing two side-by-side projections. The projection on the left shows the outline of two humans embracing surrounded by the hand-written words 'Love is all we need' in red. The projection on the right shows two rough-drawn humans standing near a detailed illustration of a brain; the words 'Ah! Its a brain' are written in beige above the illustrations.

Detail of Can You Hear Me? (2018–2020)

Malani harnesses the power of storytelling in her moving images and believes that art can shift the way we perceive the world. In this way, she shares a vision with Moholy-Nagy, who pursued an interdisciplinary practice of unifying art and technology with life, a mode he called ‘vision in motion’, through which one could see, feel, and think in a new dimension.

For over half a century, Malani has aspired to be an agent for social change through art. While her works speak of her personal experiences, they also reflect on the challenges we face collectively as a society. Through a retelling of the stories of Mad Meg, Alice in Wonderland, and countless marginalised, nameless people, Malani reminds her viewers to look beyond the surface and listen closely, especially to those whose voices are silenced.

This article was originally published in Nalini Malani: Vision in Motion, a companion guide to the inaugural exhibition at the M+ Studio. It has been modified slightly for readability.

Utopia and Remembering Mad Meg: © Nalini Malani; M+, Hong Kong. Can You Hear Me?: Courtesy the artist. All installation photos: Lok Cheng and Dan Leung, M+, Hong Kong.

Doryun Chung is Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator at M+. Olivia Chow is Assistant Curator, Visual Art at M+.

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