Many of the tragedies that marked Murni’s life were intimately tied to her body. She suffered sexual abuse as a young girl at the hands of her father, leaving her feeling small, powerless, and was silent about her experience for three decades. At age 10, she escaped her family and found a job as a domestic worker, but soon bore the weight of demanding physical labour on her young, fragile body. In her first marriage, tension brewed between Murni and her husband when she could not bear children—causing her husband to ask for a second wife, and Murni to divorce him. In her late 30s, yet another powerful force threatened to take control of her body. Murni was diagnosed with ovarian cancer which eventually took her life in 2006, only a few months away from her 40th birthday.
The body was thus a recurring subject matter throughout Murni’s decade-long career. Indonesian writers have analysed these works as Murni’s attempts to reconnect with and reclaim her body amid a Balinese context, where a woman’s body tended to be “held sacred in a prison of passive narcissism” (Indonesian Women Artists, 2007).
Observing her diverse depictions of the female figure, one could indeed detect the artist’s nuanced, evolving relationship with her body. Earlier works such as My Sepatu (My Shoes) showcase more conventional depictions of the body: the skin and proportion are painted in a naturalistic manner albeit showing strong direction towards the symbolic. This painting features recurring symbols that stay consistently prominent throughout her entire practice such as shoes and wristwatches.
Art historian Wulan Dirgantoro connects the grotesque qualities of Murni’s bodies to how trauma survivors commonly experience overwhelmed senses, which the artist poignantly captures in her exaggerated, fragmented body parts. But beyond the narratives of her personal life, the abject figures in Murni’s work are also congruent to the distorted bodies that emerged in contemporary art during her time that responded to the oppressive atmosphere during Indonesia’s New Order period. Murni’s bodies, however, stood out from her male contemporaries for how they fused the personal and the political. According to art historian Paul Khoo, her works articulated not only her own traumas, but also the traumas of the social instability that characterised the earlier years of Reformasi Indonesia. In emphasising the truths endured by one’s body, Murni’s figures remain powerful and urgent in Indonesia and beyond, challenging societies that seek to repress the embodied memories of individual and collective traumas.