Born in Karachi in 1946, Nalini Malani moved to Calcutta with her family shortly before the partition of the subcontinent the following year. Several decades later, her work continues to be shaped by her family’s experiences as refugees at that time, focusing on themes of memory, politics and identity through a meditative and poetic vocabulary. Asserting the postcolonial’s claim to the indigenous and the ‘other’ as an active process of decolonization, Malani is unapologetic in her appropriation of imagery from a multitude of cultures and time periods.
In her paintings on clear acrylic sheets, Malani uses the Eighteenth Century Chinese technique of reverse painting to create images of moving figures. This technique, which she learned from fellow artist Bhupen Khakhar, involves applying layers of paint in reverse order, beginning with the figures and then moving on to the background, then turning the sheet over to view the final image. For Malani, this process of painting the final touches first represents a subversion of conventions, allowing her to “unlearn art school, where you learn to build up layers of oil paint” (S. Seervai, ‘Listening to the Shades,’ Wall Street Journal, 7 December 2013, accessed December 2018). In the act of reversing the surface, the artist’s expressive brushstrokes are put at a distance and shielded behind the clear mylar, denying the fetishizing of the bodies on display and encouraging the viewer to focus on the composition in its entirety.
Celebrating Malani’s distinguished career spanning more than five decades, last year Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona awarded her the Joan Miró Prize, and is currently hosting her exhibition You Don’t Hear Me. Malani also received the first Contemporary Fellowship awarded by the National Gallery, London, this year, supporting a two-year research, production, and exhibition program at the Holburne Museum in Bath. A major retrospective of Malani’s work was held in two parts at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2017) and Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2018), and her work has been included in numerous exhibitions worldwide including at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai (2020), the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2017), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2016) and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (2014).