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Indian artist Nalini Makani at her solo exhibition “Vision in Motion” at M+ Museum in West Kowloon, Hong Kong. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Indian artist on how female oppression fuels new giant video at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, and why she refuses to stay silent over historical grievances

  • Indian video-art pioneer Nalini Malani’s ‘In Search of Vanished Blood’ gives voices to the minorities – especially women – on whose bodies history is written
  • She says the world is going backwards and ‘the new narcissist is someone who thinks they are not going to die’. Her solo exhibition at M+ runs until September 4

In 2020, in the Indian city of Mumbai, the artist Nalini Malani decided to screen a new work called Can You Hear Me? to as many people as possible.

The Indian video-art pioneer had it projected on the outside wall of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, one of the most luxurious and certainly most visible of hotels in her home city, which can be seen from miles away.

The work consists of a series of stop-motion iPad drawings, shown at breakneck speed, that reference violence, chaos and how writers such as Hannah Arendt address the dark sides of human nature. The drawings were originally posted on Instagram during Covid-19 lockdown.

No feeling was spared for the guests inside the five-star establishment. She wanted people to know why she began the series.

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“For my work Can You Hear Me?, always keep in mind that in 2018 an eight-year-old girl from a nomadic tribe in Kashmir took her ponies to graze in a forest, was caught by eight men who trapped her inside a temple, drugged her, gang raped her for eight days, and then killed her,” she says.

Malani is speaking in Hong Kong, where that work has been installed at the M+ museum since December 2021 as part of her solo exhibition “Vision in Motion” (on until September 4).

“In Search of Vanished Blood” (2012/22) as shown on the M+ Facade. Photo: Moving Image Studio / Courtesy of Nalini Malani and M+

Malani was born in the now Pakistani city of Karachi one year before the bloody partition of India in 1947 that saw her family exiled to what was then Calcutta (now Kolkata) and then later to Bombay (now Mumbai). Her awareness of the history of violence and the danger of fanaticism runs deep through her diverse body of work.

Remembering Mad Meg (2007-2019), another work in the M+ exhibition, recalls the blood spilled during the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya; the horrors of the 2002 Gujarat riots; and earlier incidences of brutality, such as the murder of Elokeshi, the wife of a government employee, which was a popular subject for 19th-century Kalighat “folk art” painters.

This immersive installation envelops the audience as they enter the windowless basement gallery at M+, with shadow play projected onto walls from giant, rotating cylindrical lanterns covered in reverse drawings, accompanied by the mostly female voices of wailing, groaning, yawning and soaring operatic notes.

It’s the finiteness of life that’s scaring the life out of people … Ultimately, we have to lose our ego and accept that we are all going to die
Nalini Malani

This could well have been the soundtrack accompanying Mad Meg, who stormed the gates of hell in Flemish folklore, and was famously portrayed in a 1563 work by painter Pieter Breugel.

Malani and her studio manager, husband Johan Pijnappel, requested the volume to be kept at ground-shaking levels. She compares the competing sounds in the gallery with the boisterousness of an Indian bazaar. It is confusing at first, but if you stand still and listen carefully, the sounds do not intrude on each other.

“You have to find the sweet spot. If you stand in that one spot, the sound is bifurcated and you can tell what’s coming from where,” she says.

Malani in her studio in Mumbai, India. Photo: Johan Pijnappel / Courtesy of the artist
But the vibrant cacophony in India has become more one-sided since the rise of Hindu nationalism over the past century, and the world in general has become divisive and lacking in tolerance (Malani says she is shocked and depressed by the attack on India-born author Salman Rushdie this week).

That silencing of the imaginary other is poetically portrayed in Malani’s latest work, unveiled this month on the facade of M+.

In Search of Vanished Blood (2012/22), an eight-and-a-half minute video, plays every evening as darkness descends on the largest outdoor video display in Hong Kong.

“This is very special. It’s out in the public. It should be very intriguing for people who see this,” Malani says.

“In Search of Vanished Blood” (2012/22) as shown on the M+ Facade. Photo: Moving Image Studio / Courtesy of Nalini Malani and M+

The video opens with a bird’s-eye view of what looks like low-rise housing bathed in red and green light (an excerpt from her 1969 work Dream Houses – a work that belied an early optimism in India’s chosen developmental path).

Then, the view turns abruptly skyward, showing fast-moving clouds against a blue sky that transitions to a much darker scene of the world map projected onto the back of a black-haired woman bathed in red. She is accompanied by a pair of greyhounds, from those famously captured by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century, but arranged to look like they are fighting, not racing.

Another woman looks on in the background, her face partially concealed by the shadows of the canines.

Later, a rapid succession of hand gestures flash on the screen before the clouds return, this time against a red sky. The frantic gesturing of the word “democracy” in sign language is as unreadable as the semaphore signalling by a group of soldiers at the end.

Makani at her solo exhibition “Vision in Motion” at M+. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The women in the film are the “Cassandras” of this world, Malani says, referring to the Trojan priestess whose prophecies were never believed but were true.

They symbolise the voices of minorities – especially women – on whose bodies history is written. From Indian partition 75 years ago, during which at least tens of thousands of women were raped, kidnapped, sold and killed, to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, women have had their agency taken away, Malani says.

Should we voice historic grievances when the world is facing a collective environmental crisis? “Yes,” is Malani’s firm answer.

Silence is only acceptable when the idea of women as independent beings with power becomes the norm everywhere, she says. And when Asians like herself can cite Western cultural heritage without being accused of derivative expression. And when human beings deserve the planet that they are fortunate enough to live on.

Makani at her solo exhibition “Vision in Motion” at M+. Photo: Jonathan Wong

So no, she is not going to keep silent. Not when the world appears to be going backwards.

“It’s the finiteness of life that’s scaring the life out of people. The new narcissist is someone who thinks they are not going to die,” she says.

“Ultimately, we have to lose our ego and accept that we are all going to die.”

“In Search of Vanished Blood” will be displayed daily on the M+ Facade from 7pm to 9.10pm until Oct 2. From Oct 8 to Oct 30 it will be presented only at weekends, also from 7pm to 9.10pm.