Nalini Malini is a New Media artist with a creative practice spanning over six decades. Her works have been exhibited at M+, Hong Kong (2021), Documenta 13 (2012), and Venice Biennale (2007 and 2005), among others. More recently, she was the first Contemporary Fellowship artist at the National Gallery, London, culminating in the exhibition "Nalini Malani: My Reality is Different."
The exhibition at MMFA – with a total of three works - makes this the first time her works are being shown in Canada. As such, the limited corpus doesn't allow for a deep dive to understand the complexity and diversity of her practice. The exhibition thus opens itself to critique regarding the curatorial choices made when it came to interpreting the works and the possible reading provided to the audience. Here, the issue remains of an over-simplification of the works, resulting in the erasure of Malini's artistic oeuvre.
The first of the three works, titled City of Desires – Crossing Boundaries, is encountered as soon as you walk down the stairs of the MMFA to the lower level. Crisscross numbered lines suggest the layout of a city; a mythological creature (unnamed) stands on one end, while warplanes on the other dropping bombs. In the middle floats a young girl, saying, "ma réalité est différente“ (my reality is different). According to the museum's didactic, the drawing hints towards "allusions to war and to wonder … alternate reality", which "evokes the bewildering complexity of our time." The didactic then talks about the process of erasure – a method that Malani deploys to resist the commodification of art.
The vague description indicates the presumed inherent logic of contemporary art, which doesn't require explanation. The themes of war, desire for an alternate reality is common enough for us all to understand and connect with on some level and thus embrace the social function art should play in our lives. The question then becomes, why do we need Malini's work to do this? Here, the issue of positioning and fleshing out the context from which these works derive themselves becomes of critical importance – which the museum has ignored.
The second work, titled Can You Hear Me? (2018-2020) is a nine-channel animation chamber with 88 hand-drawn iPad stop-motion animations and resembles a chaotic mind where a thousand and one thoughts appear, only to be chased by the next one, without any resolution of either. The didactic tells us how the work draws references and cites from literature and political philosophy, including Gandhi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Hannah Ardent. We are also told that Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland "appears repeatedly" alongside one personal thought, three news stories, and eight quotations. The news stories are about the violence that religious (Dalit), gendered (a girl child), and ethnic (Kashmiri) minorities are currently facing in India.
If the issue in the first work remained the generalization of the work and focusing on thematics everyone cares about, here the specific citations work to define the boundaries of violence which can only exist elsewhere, in places and spaces far removed from 'here.' As such, the didactics make a distinction between us and them, where the 'us' obviously cares about the violence, but it is 'their' issue, emerging from 'their' context, and is indicative of 'who they are.'
All of this contrasts with how Malani sees her work, whose "uprootedness" allows for "affirmative possibilities of experiencing linkages."1Ritika Kochhar, “‘Uprootedness Is Not Always Negative’: Nalini Malani,” The Theatre Times (blog), July 29, 2019, https://thetheatretimes.com/uprootedness-is-not-always-negative-nalini-malani/. But are there any linkages in this exhibition and its presentation? The answer, for me, unfortunately, remains no! By designating violence as an issue of elsewhere, the colonial violence that links us all and has come to define the experiences of indigenous, racialized, queer, and gendered communities remains unspoken of. At this point, one is likely to get the response that the audience is free to make such connections on their own. But such responses refuse to consider the pervasive gaze of the museum, which maintains the binary between us/them, here/there, etc. This binary is further authenticated by the native informant/artist whose works give credence to this violence's existence elsewhere. These glaring omissions are indicative of institutional amnesia and erasure.
What we are left with, then, is the flattening of narratives present in the works. The exhibition negates both the contextual reality and complexity from which these works originate and the global violence against gendered and racialized bodies. The exhibition is being presented at a time in Quebec, where debates around secularism, assimilation, migration, and closure of borders,2Matthew Lapierre · CBC News ·, “New York Officials Worry Closing Roxham Road Could Lead to Chaos If Migrants Keep Coming | CBC News,” CBC, March 25, 2023, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/new-york-roxham-canada-travel-1.6791263. all remain glaringly missing from the museum's narrative. As such, the erasure of these issues from the reading of these works is only made possible by the over-simplification of the interpretation of the works. There is too much at stake here for museums not to be taking a stand or for us to ignore that museums as social institutions need to play a more significant role in advocating change.
- Ritika Kochhar, “‘Uprootedness Is Not Always Negative’: Nalini Malani,” The Theatre Times (blog), July 29, 2019, https://thetheatretimes.com/uprootedness-is-not-always-negative-nalini-malani/.
- Matthew Lapierre · CBC News ·, “New York Officials Worry Closing Roxham Road Could Lead to Chaos If Migrants Keep Coming | CBC News,” CBC, March 25, 2023, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/new-york-roxham-canada-travel-1.6791263.