For Art Basel (Basel)’s 2023 Feature Sector, Gajah Gallery is delighted to present a solo exhibition of the seminal artist I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih (1966 – 2006): the only artist from Southeast Asia represented in the fair’s Feature sector.
From the mid-1900s to 2006, Murniasih was a singular voice in the Indonesian art scene, particularly for her unapologetic depictions of the body, sexuality, and the depths of her subconscious. Yet, in the years following her death in 2006, she was largely overlooked in dominant narratives of Indonesian and Southeast Asian art histories. Gajah Gallery’s presentation presents a number of early works that have not yet been exhibited to the public, from paintings to soft and wooden sculptures, while also sparking deeper readings on salient themes in her oeuvre. In doing so, it addresses unexplored depths in Murni’s vast body of work; examines the relevance and urgency of her work today; and in exhibiting her work outside of Southeast Asia, reappraises the power of legacy in the global stage.
Born in Bali in 1966, Murni had an early life marked with hardship and profound resilience. As a young girl, she survived sexual violence and demanding labour as a domestic worker. In her mid-20s, Murniasih embraced her calling as an artist. She learned under the tutelage of I Dewa Putu Mokoh, who taught her the Pengosekan School, yet she remained mainly self-taught. She honed her own style of strong curved lines and bright, loud colours; and broke away from traditional themes to embrace a deeply personal, interior subject matter—her traumatic past and wild, vivid dreams. Murni painted her pains and fantasies with humour and honesty. In her world, female subjects unabashedly embrace pleasure; amorphous bodies transform from passive to active; and exaggerated erotic body parts appear alive and at times, sacred.
The works selected in this show spark rich, ongoing conversations surrounding themes of the body, trauma, dreams, and female desire—reflecting how Murni’s works, while they stem from her life, persist to resonate with audiences beyond her time and place. Diverse, unconventional iterations of the female body reveal her evolving understanding of its agency and power—ultimately subverting the pervasive male gaze and endless depictions of women as passive objects of desire. The distorted bodies in her works have also been connected to how trauma survivors commonly experience overwhelmed senses, and have affinities with the grotesque bodies that emerged in the art of her time, in response to the oppressive atmosphere of Indonesia’s New Order period. In emphasising the truths endured by one’s body, Murni’s figures remain powerful and urgent—challenging societies that seek to repress the embodied memories of individual and collective traumas.
Recurring fantastical and natural creatures in her works invite a deeper discussion on her fascination with dreams, which has been connected to the ancient knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples, shamans, and healers across history. Expanding our notions of the surreal, her ‘dream’ paintings were also a kind of protection for the artist. In a recent interview, Murni’s partner Mondo Zanolini revealed that Murni described her works as dreams to avoid condemnation for her more sensual, explicit paintings, which were often labeled pornographic. What came out in her dreams was beyond her control, and she was thus merely painting her subconscious. Such paintings reveal how she shrewdly navigated taboos and shame surrounding female sexuality—enduring as testaments to the subversive power of dreams.
Since her death in 2006, her works have been hailed across Southeast Asia for their strength, originality, and ability to transcend stereotypes of other survivors of injustice. Her work has been exhibited in prestigious institutions such as the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN); the National Gallery of Australia; and the 58th edition of Carnegie International.