Talking about Akka, 2007

The references contained within the works of Nalini Malani come from history and culture, but they are mixed with personal or psychological questions, building up another layer of meaning, as in the new work Remembering Mad Meg that Malani created for the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which occupies a 17th century residence for retired soldiers of the British army in Ireland, and which stands for many as a reminder of a none-too-distant colonial past. Movement, transparency and cultural and historical layering are inherent in Malani’s exploration of disintegrating subjectivity. Her figures may be androgynous, and is some early works, or they may be victims of individual psychic horrors, while at the same time they may be read as allegories for political and ecological dangers. She has projected images from Palestine and Bosnia, and from the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, over her Indian references, mixing universal concepts with specific historical and personal ones.

Sita/Medea, 2006

Aidan Dunne, Looking at India from the Outside, The Irish Times 31 August 2007

As her IMMA exhibition makes clear, Malani’s work is remarkable for its range of inventiveness, and its wonderful technical fluency. It engages us on a number of levels and is readily accessible. She has been at the cutting edge of Indian art more or less since the beginning of the 1970s and, while her work is still rooted in the traditional practices of drawing and paintings, from the early 1990s she has also moved convincingly into multimedia installation and performance events. One striking example is her use of what she terms the “shadow play”, involving rotating cylinders, projected imagery and other elements. Essentially, the shadow plays extend and animate the language of her painting rather than superseding it.

There is a teeming vitality to her work, then and now, that stems from this novelistic ambition to encompass the whole world. One can see why video installation and shadow plays are a logical extension of her paintings, allowing her to envelop the viewer in complex sensory environments. Not that there is anything lacking in the paintings. They are distinctive: reverse paintings made on Mylar or, more usually, acrylic. We look through the transparent support and see the painting from the back, so to speak, in the reverse order to which the paint was applied. Malani is a virtuoso of the technique, which allows her a range of effects that recall both stained glass and Indian miniature painting in terms of chromatic intensity.

Her paintings could be described as open-ended, free flowing narratives, though each is not a single, sequential narrative. Rather, she draws on an extensive range of narrative references to engender a narrative space with which we can engage at will. From the beginning of the 1990s she has built up an eclectic cast of characters. They have in common the fact that they are emblematically strong, female protagonists. She has consistently felt free to draw on global traditions in myth and literature, not to be exclusively or purely “Indian” in her iconography. “It’s important that we have a global view of India,” she says succinctly.

The IMMA show, which provides a comprehensive survey of the range of her activity, is her first solo show in Europe. The museum deserves great credit for the initiative but more than that, Malani delivered a brilliant, unmissable exhibition.