In May, artist Nalini Malani was working on a 25-metre wall drawing for Castello Di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Rivoli, Italy, which will host a retrospective of her work later this year. In between work, whenever she took a break, Malani started a new project – creating notebooks of iPad animations. She opened an Instagram account to share these notebooks in May, and by the end of June, she had shared 15 animations.
An artist’s notebook is a glimpse into her creative process, a guide of sorts to viewing the world as she does. It is rare to get a glimpse of a senior artist’s notebook and even rarer to find one making original artworks for Instagram. So why is Malani – who has had 12 solo exhibitions at international museums and retrospectives at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi – interested in sharing these notebooks on social media?
“This is a fun thing I like to do,” she said, in a phone conversation in June. “I keep doing these little exercises to open up my imagination. It’s like having a conversation with a friend. You could call it ‘short thoughts’. Also, I like the idea of Free Art.”
Malani’s Instagram artwork can be downloaded and, in that sense, owned by anyone – “You can download it; show it anywhere. They’re all high-resolution animations so you can show them on a small screen or a large one. It is copyleft art. I only ask that no one should morph it in Photoshop.”
Looking back, it seems only right that Malani should be among the first Indian artists of her stature and generation to make Instagram art. It feels like a natural progression of her style, and in keeping with the wide range of materials and scale she has worked with in the past.
Over the years, since 1969, Malani’s work has included mediums such as video, canvas, wall drawings, books, theatre, performance art and transparent cylinders that are then suspended from the ceiling to create massive shadow-play works. Her creations range from 12-inch painted art books to a 14-metre long polyptych. Now, her smallest public artworks – iPad animations – can be measured in pixels.
“Just like a writer can write a postcard, short story, novel, novella and a newspaper article, the artist, too, has a whole range of formats available to her,” Malani said. “Painting is a slow process. Especially when you’re making a large work. Sometimes I just have to wait for the paint to dry. So, I can do a drawing for my daughter or build on a quirky thought even as I make something monumental.”
The iPad animations, like a lot of Malani’s other works, are drawn by hand. The drawings are then stitched together frame by frame to make a stop motion-like video. “I think drawing by hand gives the work texture that would not be possible otherwise,” she said.
Arc of a story
Malani’s works, from Remembering Mad Meg to Sita/Medea 2, are narrative pieces and tell stories of mythic proportions. Her Instagram stories take a leaf out of the same book, though her characters here are more everyday than Cassandra, Medea and Sita.
One post, for example, tells the story of a girl walking down the street. She sees something on the ground and stoops to pick it up. The moment she brings it closer for inspection, it transforms into a monster.
The stop motion-like video captures the girl’s emotions as she completes the story arc – we see the girl carefree at first, then intrigued and finally horrified in just over six seconds. “It’s like making a photograph of someone you know really well,” said Malani. “When they’re comfortable enough to let the emotions show – some of their expressions can be quite humorous. It’s drawing in motion.”
In another post, the artist shows a little girl climbing onto the back of a fly and flying away. “They’re light-hearted pieces that I think young people will enjoy,” she said. Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t depths to be discovered for those who want something beyond the surface story. “Just because something’s fun doesn’t mean it’s not serious.”
The Instagram videos are like conversations with painters and poets whose works Malani admires. This set of 15 posts, so far, already includes works inspired by the late American painter Philip Guston, who switched from purely abstract works to making cartoonish representations of everyday scenes. “I admire his work, especially his late work,” she said.
Malani is now trying to figure out ways to add textual references to these Instagram videos – the app she’s currently using to draw the animations does not allow her to type in text. She is currently reading James Baldwin and is keen to quote the late social critic and novelist in her Instagram works.
Referencing literary texts is something Malani does often in her reverse paintings, video/shadow plays and installations. To cite one example, in 2016, Malani made a polyptych in her Conflicting Stories series. On one of the panels, she inverted a quote from Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. “Your memory gets in the way of my history,” a grown man ominously tells a child in the painting.
The iPad animations are also not the first time that Malani has made works that are not for sale. She often makes large drawings on a wall at a gallery that is showing her work. Towards the end of the exhibition, she invites visitors to help her erase the artwork in a choreographed performance. The wall drawings aren’t meant for sale or ownership by any one person, but Malani hopes they live on in the memories of the people who see them being made and then erased.
The latest example of such a wall drawing is Malani’s 25-metre City of Desires III: Global Parasites, which will be unveiled at The Rebellion of the Dead, a 50-year retrospective of her work in Rivoli. It is the third work in City of Desires, a series she began in 1992 at Mumbai’s Chemould Art Gallery, and the theme remains the underbelly of Mumbai and how the city has changed over the years. The mammoth work will be erased in January 2019, at the end of the retrospective.
Malani is interested in making art more accessible, to awaken it. She said that taking art out of the walls of the gallery, and sharing it with the larger public is a dream not just for her, but for other artists as well. Another aim of the work she is doing on Instagram is to “combat boredom for it can be noxious. People get bored easily. Artists never get bored. I never get bored. There’s so much to see, so much to read. I want to share some of these things with people, so they never get bored”.
Arguably, sharing quality art on Instagram is like a public installation. As long as you have a mobile phone and a data connection, you can access this art from anywhere in the world. Leandre D’Souza of ArtOxygen, a collective that organises public art events like [en]counter in Mumbai, said, “Showing works in a public space is about perception – about how we use space differently, how we put things across differently, how we create the conditions for a strange encounter with art that becomes a starting point for a gathering of people, to talk about how we can collectively alter our environment, our politics, our social reality. Gathering followers on Instagram is like that, too.”
Malani’s following on #MalaniNotebooks is just over a 1,000 but these are early days. What is remarkable is that at a time when art galleries are using Instagram to promote new shows, and some artists are using it to post pictures of works made for traditional exhibition spaces, Malani has opted to create new works specifically for this platform. “I am interested in posting the artwork itself,” she explained. “These are like opening my real notebooks to the public.”