(b. 1966-2006, Bali, Indonesia)
Born in Bali in 1966, Murni’s early life was marked with hardship, movement and profound resilience. After surviving sexual abuse from her father as a young girl, she worked as a domestic worker in Ujung Pandang at the age of 10, a seamstress in Jakarta, then a jeweler in Bali before she embraced her calling as an artist. In her mid-20s, she trained under the tutelage of artist I Dewa Putu Mokoh, who taught her the Pengosekan School composed of pale earthy tones, thick black outlines and traditional motifs of flora and fauna. Murni, however, remained mainly self-taught as an artist. She eventually honed her own childlike style of strong curved lines and bright, bold colours; and broke away from traditional themes to embrace a deeply personal, interior subject matter—her traumatic past and wild, vivid dreams.
Surrendering to the stream of images that emerged from her subconscious, Murni painted her pains and fantasies with humour and honesty: sharp objects piercing through erotic body parts, animals and vegetation morphing into alien-like creatures, for instance. In Murni’s world, female subjects unabashedly embrace pleasure; amorphous, grotesque bodies transform from passive to active; fantastical creatures and objects brim with human emotion and confidence; and exaggerated erotic body parts appear alive and at times, sacred. These scenes and motifs have been described as frank, unfiltered, bold, strange, shocking. But when one steps from a distance, peering at their power and diversity, her works paint a striking picture of an artist breaking free—from social convention, from the demands of the art world, from the pains of a difficult past and from the stereotypes of what a woman, a Balinese, and an artist could create.
Unrestricted by conventional social and aesthetic Balinese values, Murni inevitably bewildered the Balinese art world in the late 1990s. Her works that reclaimed her sexuality and body, scarred with the traumas of rape and years of demanding labour, stood in sharp contrast to a culture that favoured women’s purity and passivity. Frank, grotesque expressions of sex and desires, especially by Balinese women, were taboo to local audiences. Yet unlike other galleries in Ubud, the Seniwati Gallery, which championed the works of all women artists in Bali, recognised the singularity and power of her art. The gallery began showcasing her work abroad, exposing her to audiences in Hong Kong, Australia and Italy. By the turn of the century, Murni eventually commanded attention in her home country. She exhibited in established art spaces such as the Cemeti Art House, where commentators began to interpret her work not only through the lens of her life, but in connection to the collective trauma that prevailed in post-New Order Indonesia.
Since Murni’s death in 2006, her works have been hailed across the globe for their strength, originality, and ability to transcend stereotypes of other survivors of injustice. Her work has been exhibited in or acquired by prestigious institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Singapore, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN), and the University of Chicago.