Nalini Malani | The perils of prophecy3 min read . Updated: 23 Jan 2014, 09:08 PM IST
Artist Nalini Malani's new solo show in Delhi examines the issue of violence against women through mythology
Spread over three rooms on three floors in Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, Nalini Malani’s small but provocative solo show is a meditation on themes that have been a constant throughout her career: violence, history, silence, memory, the body, the local and the global, and the environment.
Malani is a cerebral artist and unusually literary; her work is filled with references to text, to writing and writers. Her Vadehra show, titled Cassandra’s Gift, features video, projections, shadow play, and her famous reverse paintings. The “muse", the inspiration for the work, is evident in the title—Cassandra, daughter of Troy, blessed with the gift of prophecy and cursed because no one believed her uncomfortable truths. Malani particularly refers to the (East) German writer Christa Wolf and her 1984 novella Cassandra, a story about a woman scorned, about all women scorned by the violence of patriarchy.
Wolf is a fascinating, complex figure, an idealist engaged in a personal moral struggle of high seriousness. She was in some small ways complicit in the great crimes of her two nations, Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic (the Stalinist eastern side of the dividing Wall), but she is at the same time a great artist, a writer of honesty, compassion and unsparing self-reflection. For Malani, it is Wolf’s humanist concerns, her moral integrity, her willingness to self-examine, that resonate, that are touchstones.
The first work at the exhibition is on the ground floor, a large video projection titled In Search of Vanished Blood, a kind of “play" about a young woman who is gang- raped. The room is papered over with the faded pink (faint, like an ineradicable bloodstain?) pages of a financial daily. Projected on to this backdrop is a world map with the US at its centre. The title is a translation of a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. You can hear the voice of a woman reading; some of what she is reading sounds like the story of Draupadi, the subject, of course, of an attempted gang rape. There is text too on the screen and animation—sketches of men who appear to be Taliban fighters and ancient dogs built like greyhounds—and hand shadows or what appears to be sign language. It’s almost too much, the targets scatter-shot. But violence and trauma is everywhere and the voices of those suffering mostly unheard.
Upstairs are some of Malani’s reverse paintings. It is a trademark technique, using ink, acrylic and enamel on the reverse sides of clear sheets made of plasticky materials like Mylar. Some of the paintings are on specially made bamboo paper. The paintings are colourful, ink-stained. Much of it looks like something you might find in a beautifully produced 18th century science book, all wind patterns and bodies and shapes morphing into other shapes.
One series of paintings is titled Discovery of the Body, an “ode", as Malani describes it in the slim catalogue, to the artist Bhupen Khakhar, who she says taught her reverse painting. The series refers to Khakhar’s coming out as gay, the work delicate and beautiful like pieces of stained glass, stained portholes in some cases.
On the third floor is The Tables Have Turned, a fuller engagement with Wolf’s Cassandra. The acrylic and Mylar sheets are shaped into tubes placed on slowly revolving turntables. The pictures on the sheets are reflected on the walls. There are bright lights too, gaudy, carnivalesque. The effect would have been more pronounced had the room been darker. Again, the piece is concerned with warnings going unheeded. Catastrophe is upon us, Malani warns, like Cassandra, but are we, or at least those in charge so committed to destruction, prepared to listen?
Cassandra’s Gift, 11am-7pm, is on till 22 February at the Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, Delhi (46103550). The gallery is closed on Sundays.