Text by Ella Mudie
When Nalini Malani, one of India’s most prominent contemporary artists, was invited to create a large-scale new media installation for presentation in India Contemporary at the Venice Biennale in 2005, her response was the startling and enigmatic video play Mother India. Recently acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, this provocative visual and sonic response to the challenge of representing continuous cycles of gendered violence is currently screening in the gallery’s Asian art wing. It represents a unique opportunity for audiences to encounter the work for the first time in Sydney across an impressive 15 metre long wall-to-wall installation.
The starting point for Malani’s synchronised five screen video projection which combines archival footage with more poetic and painterly imagery is the essay Language and Body: Transactions in the. Construction of Pain by anthropologist Veena Das, known for her bold questioning of the nature of violence, social suffering and subjectivity. Malani shares with Das an ongoing concern for gender relations and in Mother India the pressing necessity to find a means of conveying the traumatic ways in which women’s bodies become implicated as sites to be claimed and owned in struggles for nationhood, is thrown into sharp relief.
Two pivotal episodes historic episodes from 20th century India form the video play’s reference points – the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and, decades later, the bloody Gujarat episode of 2002 which involved a horrific campaign of violent rape against Muslim women. In grappling with the considerable challenges of imaging endemic sexual violence, Malani instead elects to begin more obliquely with an interplay of voices. The piercing, shrill voice of an unnamed women cries out “what do you take me for? A something machine?” offset by the calm and authoritative declaration of a male Nehruvian voice who states that “the national honour is at stake.” This highly charged verbal exchange sets in motion the tension in the work over boundaries – those of the nation, political ideals and the female body.
These disembodied voices are like ghosts resurrected from the archive and bring to mind Malani’s previous suggestion that “the artist is a witness to a memory of loss.” In Mother India, the visual witnessing begins with a montage of documentary style footage of a procession of billowing flags followed by images of women spinning yarn on wheels and film of masses of displaced people carrying their possessions through streets and fields. From relatively concrete beginnings, Malani soon shifts into a more disparate and abstract realm as the female body assumes a spectral quality. In one projection, an ethereal imprint of a woman in loose blue robes hovers over the ordered cartographic delineations of a map. In an another, a female face in close up appears as if dissolving into shadows while partially illuminated by patches of blood-like red light.
Concluding with a rapid fire procession of images of the ruins of destroyed homes in Gujarat, Malani emphasises how cycles of violence continue into the present. The nearby installation of two earlier single channel video works, Memory: record/erase (1996) and Stains (2000) reveal how far Malani has travelled on her journey to transcend the boundaries of the mediums of painting, drawing and video to prise open alternate ways of representing complex truths. With its new home in a major centre for Asian art in Australia, Malani’s Mother India both intervenes and enters into conversation with the broad reconfigurations of identity and womanhood already represented in this diverse collection.
Nalini Malani: Mother India, 11/02/2012 – 20/05/2012, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au
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