Murniasih’s works are also open to another interpretation, namely the celebration of the feminine, from the unabashed celebration of female pleasure to the use of female-centric imageries (vagina, breasts, ‘centre core’ motifs) in her paintings.

Wulan Dirgantoro in ‘Displacing Desire: Sex and Humour in Murniasih’s Works’.

From left:
Detik Kontrol (Moment of Control)
2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 25 x 20 cm

Private Collection

Aku susah bernapas (I’m having trouble breathing)
2000, Acrylic on Canvas, 90 x 60 cm

Private Collection

Murni’s works that confront traditional notions of femininity deliver gripping statements about a woman’s undeniable possession of her mind and body. Having subjected her body to laborious conditions, she is well aware of the absence of control in the slave woman’s body, where her body and being have become the disciplined properties of another. The artist unabashedly displays such imposed conditions through works like Stress dan Stress (1999), Aku Susah Bernapas (2000) and Berdadan (2002). Here, the anthropomorphised women must endure arduous, stressful climates while simultaneously submit to society’s expectations to appear effortless and beautiful.

Suara rasa perut (The voice of the feelings in my stomach)
1999, Acrylic on Canvas, 150 x 100 cm

In these paintings, Murni draws attention to presiding societal norms that are tantamount to disciplining the female body. This includes committing one’s body to an ideal shape, cosmetically enhancing features and perpetuating gendered adornment like high heels. In an interview with Kompas, Murni spoke about her fascination with high heels and how much she admired their beauty, but also acknowledged the pain they caused: “I myself can never wear those shoes: my soles always hurt when I try to wear them.” However, while these heels and other gendered iconographies could allude to bodily vulnerability, in some of Murni’s works they transform into symbols of power and autonomy. Underpinning these paintings is thus an undeniable urge to fully claim a woman’s freedom and agency from these cultural conventions. Murni encompasses her hopes for the female body in Detik Kontrol (2004). Wearing her high heels with fierce confidence, the body achieves stable and grounded control, unswayed by societal normalisation.

Berdandan (Dressing up)
2002, Acrylic on Canvas, 74.5 x 74.5 cm

Private Collection

Holding a hand mirror, an anthropomorphised sow clad in bright aqua lingerie is in the midst of using a snout hair trimmer, which bears an “LV” inscription. At her vanity table is a spread of cosmetic products that await her use, such as talcum powder, a comb, and a large pencil. Through Berdadan (Gussy Up), the artist creates her own version of ‘lipstick on a pig’, which mocks futile efforts to dress up to disguise fundamental failing. Yet she playfully challenges perceptions of the sow by humanising it in a well-deserved maintenance and cosmetic enhancement, portrayed without prejudice.

Here, Murni defies the proverbial expressions referring to pigs as poorly regarded and unclean, providing a benefit of doubt on such creatures by way of personification. Having experienced various laborious working conditions as part of her inscribed role in society, she empowers women who deem themselves different and otherised or of lower echelons to own their voice and grow beyond the prescribed status and stereotypes of women. 

Stress dan Stress (Stress and Stress)
1999, Acrylic on Canvas, 70 x 30 cm

Private Collection

With her eyes closed and a cigarette in mouth, a woman with a neck-through body confidently walks down a slope in high heels. The title Stress dan Stress (Stress and Stress) could allude to the subject experiencing psychological strain from her difficult conditions, but she appears to face it head on with a serene face that evokes that of a Buddha, as if internalising the essence of things around her and unburdened by what comes through the eyes. Challenging the notion of women’s vulnerability, the artist employs calmness as a way to combat earthly problems and chooses to focus on looking inwards to the self to attain solace.

Transforming her stress upon stress into a state of sangfroid, the protagonist tilted in an angle seems susceptible to spiraling—but as the painting suggests, she regains a sense of stability after a whirlwind of tension. This manifestation brings about the circle of life wherewith the infinite nature of energy provides and takes, and continues to provide ways to counteract earthly subjugation.