Paris

Nalini Malani, The Job, 1997, cloth, metal, bell jars, vinyl, rice, lentils, turmeric, salt, chili powder, digital video (color, silent, 10 minutes). Installation view. Photo: Philippe Migeat.

Nalini Malani, The Job, 1997, cloth, metal, bell jars, vinyl, rice, lentils, turmeric, salt, chili powder, digital video (color, silent, 10 minutes). Installation view. Photo: Philippe Migeat.

Nalini Malani

Centre Pompidou

Nalini Malani, The Job, 1997, cloth, metal, bell jars, vinyl, rice, lentils, turmeric, salt, chili powder, digital video (color, silent, 10 minutes). Installation view. Photo: Philippe Migeat.

I walked into a womb-like interior—and panicked. Eight clear Mylar cylinders were suspended from the ceiling, each one painted on the inside and lit from within, and they were made to rotate, so that they projected shifting, sliding colored images on the walls as they spun around and around: a little girl on crutches, schools of fish gobbled up by a bigger fish, mutilated limbs and intestines swirling in the red glare, and . . . was that Lewis Carroll’s Alice suspended in a pool of blood? The sword-wielding Mad Meg, an apparition from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s eponymously named 1562 painting, replaces her.

Welcome to Remembering Mad Meg, 2007, one of Nalini Malani’s seminal “video/shadow plays.” This art aims to be hair-raising. That our first encounter at this major retrospective—sensitively curated by Sophie Duplaix—was with one of Malani’s best-known and goriest offerings was deliberate. The Mumbai-based artist described the installation as the “spine” of the show, whose themes of violence, especially violence against the female body, reverberated throughout the exhibition. In The Job, 1997—whose title refers to Bertolt Brecht’s short story (ca. 1933) about a woman who impersonates her dead husband to earn her daily bread—breast-shaped glass containers hang over a stuffed dummy in a ghostly puddle of light. Will she rise up and avenge womanhood?

Tracing Malani’s output from the 1960s to the present day, Duplaix exhumed the artist’s early experiments with film, such as Onanism, 1969; her monochrome, cameraless “Photograms,” 1969–70; and her later immersive installations, such as Hamletmachine, 2000, in which a rectangle of snow-white salt on the floor, used as a makeshift video screen, is flanked by three other projections in a dark room. Also included was All We Imagine as Light, 2017, containing Malani’s recent ruminations on war-torn Kashmir, for which she paints contorted figures—weeping mothers and sad-eyed girls—on the reverse of transparent plastic sheets, the technique echoing that used in Remembering Mad Meg. Just as Malani’s latest paintings cleverly allude to film in their use of transparent plastic, her installations invariably suggest painting. Both regularly gesture toward political violence.

As Duplaix’s curation underscored, the sectarian riots that erupted in India in 1992 and 2002 had a profound impact on Malani, dredging up childhood horrors. The artist was an infant when, to escape the Hindu-Muslim violence that followed the partition of South Asia in 1947, her family fled Karachi, now in Pakistan, where she was born, for Mumbai. Malani explains that the riots inspired her to push the boundaries of painting—to politically activate it. The merits and pitfalls of this approach are exemplified in the multimedia installation Unity in Diversity, 2003, which features a mock-up of Raja Ravi Varma’s celebrated nineteenth-century oil painting Galaxy of Musicians, a depiction of demure, bejeweled women from India’s different regions and religions. Malani’s reproduction of Varma’s canvas occupies pride of place in what looks like a snug bourgeois living room in India, complete with black-and-white photographs of the fathers of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. However, a film screened over the faux painting refers to the communal violence that left Nehru’s dream of “unity in diversity” in tatters. In Malani’s version, gunshots ring out, and bullet wounds obscure the smiling visages of the musicians. Viewers’ peace might have been similarly shattered—but for how long? Malani’s brilliantly theatrical display disturbed me for reasons other than those intended, making me wonder about the real impact of political art. Much like Nehru’s platitudes, did Malani’s retrospective also cater to a well-meaning bourgeoisie? Even if the Centre Pompidou’s visitors were genuinely sympathetic, what are the chances they will be willing (or able) to revolutionize Indian politics, or even those of their own ever more divided Europe?

Zehra Jumabhoy