Far from moralising, Murni’s sexual imageries are wild and wide-ranging. Painted in bright, loud colours and a childlike, fantastical manner, her bold depictions of sex and erotic body parts strip away the secrecy and shame typically shrouding these explicit themes. 

The interplay between pleasure and pain, innocence and maturity, and sex and power in Murni’s sensual subject matters offers a glimpse into the artist’s personal story and struggles. References to objectification recall Murni’s earliest experience of sex: When she was a child, her father raped her. This experience was one of the early catalysts for her soft sculpture works – imbuing meaning into the act of cutting, sewing, stuffing, or piercing that exist within the process of creating them. The abuse scarred her with trauma that haunted her for thirty years. Yet, as much as her works confronted and served as a release for her pain, they also reveal her complexity and moving journey towards self-discovery. While sex may have once felt suffocating to her, her works also show sex in which female subjects experience power, even joy.

“In Murni’s art, it is not just naked bodies that shock, but naked female bodies. It is not just the naked female bodies, but their depiction in ways that completely defy any acceptable form of prettiness,” art historian Astri Wright wrote in 1999. Amid a culture that favoured women’s purity and passivity, people in Bali in the 1990s were accustomed to seeing the woman’s nude body as a commodity, a glossy object to obsess over: found in calendars that came from abroad, or erotica art by foreign men. Moreover, in the larger context of Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim society, sex and sexuality were rarely discussed publicly. Frank, grotesque expressions of a Balinese woman actively exploring and enjoying her body, in which the woman was no longer beholden to the male fantasy, were taboo—and consequently disturbed local audiences.

Nonetheless, Murni never censored herself. “In my opinion, if my paintings happen to touch on so-called taboo subjects, why should I be ashamed?” she said.

Refusing to confine her creativity and sexuality within social convention, Murni subverted the ubiquitous male gaze and paved the way for other women within her context to centre their own subjectivity in their art—earning her the rightful label as a pioneer.