Over the past six years, the work of the late artist I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih (1966-2006), also known as ‘Murni’, has been gaining recognition across the globe—a welcome phenomenon after the pioneering artist had been largely overlooked in art histories after her death. Her works have recently been acquired or exhibited by major institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and most recently, the United States—where a significant collection of her works are drawing critical attention at the 58th Carnegie International. Commentators have observed how her works express agency over one’s body; challenge social conventions around sensuality; and transcend stereotypical depictions of survivors of injustice. This only reveals how despite coming from a deeply personal place, Murni’s art persists to resonate universally.
Almost two decades since her last solo show in the city of Jakarta, it is about time that her works be showcased in the capital of her home country, Indonesia. Marking Murni’s return to Jakarta, Gajah Gallery presents a significant number of her paintings, and soft and wooden sculptures that have yet to be displayed to the public. The solo show further contributes to the vibrant conversations her works have sparked across the world, while also complicating what she means within the context of Indonesian contemporary art.
Boldly addressing themes of trauma, survival, female sexuality and desire, Murni’s work had long been interpreted through the lens of her biography, which had been fraught with poverty, sexual violence, and illness. But recent scholarship shows us how her works resonate beyond her life, crucially illuminating the fullness and subjectivities of others who have long been marginalized in society and art history. Her distorted bodies in works like Eksion have been connected to how trauma survivors commonly experience overwhelmed senses, and have affinities with the grotesque bodies that emerged in the art of the late 1990s, in response to the oppressive atmosphere of Indonesia’s New Order period. Her iconic series of paintings featuring objects piercing through erotic body parts, such as in Bikin Kesenangan Dengan Ikan, subvert gender-based inequalities of the time that suppressed expressions of female pleasure.
Drawing beyond the confines of her lived experiences, her paintings of surreal scenes such as in Aku Melihat Diriku Terapung, where a woman is portrayed floating blissfully in air, communicate how she found respite in her fantasies and dreams. These bright, bizarre works ultimately reveal an artist who refused to be defined solely by her suffering: Murni wholly embraced joy, and the endless possibilities of her agency and creativity. It is in this way that her works continue to inspire—powerfully painting us another picture of what it means to survive.
About the Artist
I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih (famously known as Murni) exemplifies the feminist convergence in Indonesia just before the turn of the century. Born in Tabanan Bali, Murni learned the Pengosekan style of painting from her mentor I Dewa Putu Mokoh when she moved to Ubud in 1987. Since 1995, she has participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions in Indonesia and abroad. Murni’s prolific art career was cut short by her long battle with cancer and subsequent death in 2006.
Murni’s vision is often criticized as perverse and immoral, but to do so is to reduce her work to a crude inventory of sex. A reflection of the patriarchy and its view of the women who are forced to navigate it, Murni’s works are deeply biographical, with a humor and pathos that we can see throughout her paintings. More than merely sex – she painted life. In fact, seen from the titles and actuality of her work, metaphors deciphered, what Murni showed us was herself- in her environment and all the aspects of her femininity.
Despite her mentorship, Murni was not particularly constrained by academic conventions in her painting. The deviation of these works from the meticulous rigour of traditional Balinese art, the somewhat uncomfortable way that bodies are portrayed in unnatural colours and contortionist shapes points to the conception of a whole new style of artistic practice outside of geography. Both her artistic style and her willingness to tackle difficult subject matter such as pleasure and sexuality have inspired other young female Balinese artists to pursue a career in visual arts and marked her as one of the important women artists in Indonesia