Prophetess of high art
Here used to be a prophetess once. The burden of Greek mythological character Cassandra's "gift" is her ability to see the future. She appears on the artists' canvases as this tragic figure of a woman who can see but is never believed. It is all psychoanalytic.
You could call Nalini Malani a kind of prophetess in the realm of postmodern art. At 73, the Mumbai-based artist who has tirelessly worked across mediums often using text, sound, performances and even theatre to make her work that is dark and ominous and distinctly feminist, is relentless. You could say it is the brutal force of an artist who is a woman, whose very politics stems from one of the biggest tragedies of the subcontinent - the Partition. She is one of midnight's children, a girl thrown into a strange space of the unknown when she moved with her parents to Calcutta from Karachi after partition. She grew up in the suburbs of Bombay and in her dual projection film Utopia (1969-1976), she documents the hope given to the middle classes by Nehru's modernism in the 1960s and contrasts it with the disillusionment in the urban dystopia of the 1970s.
A surrealist, Malani likes to seduce first as part of her strategy. Once you step inside the door,there are horrors to see and to feel.
Recently, she was awarded the 2019 Joan Miró Prize that conveys 70,000 (about $77,800) and a solo show that is set to open at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona in 2020. The award recognises themes similar to that of the Spanish Surrealist. Surrealism developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself. Its aim was to find form in contradictory conditions of dream and reality. Now, she is busy working on a video work about anxious worriers about the state of the world. This is 50 years of art making with a long trajectory including having participated in 21 biennales across the world with many ups and downs, she says.
Unlike many other artists, Malani's way of mixing everything stems from her understanding of the world of writing. Elsewhere in another interview, she has said she envy writers because they work with a poverty of means. That sparks the imagination.
Born in 1946 in Karachi, her work has always examined the subject of war and Indian nationalism, and the role of women.
She attended Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay (1964-1969) and lived and worked in Paris from 1970 to 1972 after receiving a scholarship from the French Government. Nothing and nobody is at odds with each other on her canvases, or on the walls where two walls occupy a face of a woman, who wears a white hijab and is then wrapped in fabric in her In Search of Vanished Blood (2012) a multi-channel projected video stretching across walls with an installation of five larger-thanlife five cylinders that hang in space which is on display at the 58th Venice Biennale as part of an exhibition in Venice called Rothko in Lampedusa which puts the refugee in the spotlight.
In these rotating 360-degree spatial and temporal experience, there are stories of migrants told in her quintessential surrealist language because she says she is concerned with the dispossessed and the voiceless. "I am a woman and therefore I will always make art from my point of view but taking in aspects in the visual arts, literature and music that inspire me," Malani says.
In her irrational juxtaposition on images extracted from histories and mythologies like Cassandra and literature panning cultures and continents, in her combination of Greek and Hindu mythologies, Malani renders her fantastical landscapes political. But then as a surrealist, she can combine anything and everything: childhood rhymes, magic tales, personal memories, agonies of Partition, growing up as a woman, the wars, etc. The mutation happens in front of you of deities and of those we know from books we have read.
"Myths are universal but cryptic truths that have come to us through aeons of time, almost like a collective unconscious of the human race," she says over email.
For her, Joan Miró' art has been important since she was a student in Paris in the '70s.
And for now she is working on a new video project for her solo exhibition at Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.
"My characters are anxious worriers about the state of the world," she says.
And she rages through the doors that have been hitherto closed with everything she can find - brush, poems, literature and performance - and claims the freedom denied to women.
And in her prophetic world, there is a darkness that itself is a warning. To not heed it is the tragedy of the world that never listened to Cassandra.