Sprung from the rich layers of her subconscious, much of her work exudes the surreal and absurd. One of her largest pieces, Aku dan Simbolku (“Me and My Symbol”) is a self-portrait that reimagines the artist as a grand dragon, where in place of her face is a blank open book containing a pair of piercing, alluring eyes. Several of her works also poignantly reveal the depths of her longings, some of which remained painfully unattained. Bermain Dengan Anak Anakku (“Playing with My Kids”) shows two cat-like creatures: the large pink creature represents a mother, while the small, ghostlike yellow creature, alluding to her child, floats beside her and reaches out a hand to her eye, as if wiping away a tear. It is no secret that Murni desired to have a child of her own, despite being barren throughout her life. Yet in these dreamlike works, it is as if Murni freed herself from the confines of the external circumstances of her life, and painted a world that was arguably not any less true.
Acrylic on Canvas, 89 x 60 cm
Acrylic on Canvas, 85 x 60 cm
Kehidupanku serba cekcok
(My life is full of bickering)
Acrylic on Canvas, 30 x 40 cm
In discussing Murni’s fascination with her dreams, art historian Astri Wright brings to light the perspective of ancient knowledge that indigenous peoples, shamans, and healers across history believe and practice—in which communication and exchanges move seamlessly between different dimensions or worlds, from the scientific and familiar to the otherworldly and unknown. She emphasises how lived experiences and sufferings during the day could translate to vastly different image syntaxes in dreams at night. While she speculates that Murni may or may not have painted from the nightmares that resulted from her life’s traumas, Wright credits a large portion of Murni’s work to her visionary dreams. In holding on to their stark imagery, it is as if Murni, in line with ancient practices, held a deep-seated belief that they needed to be remembered—that they were messages she needed to bring out to the world.
Aku Ingin Terbang (I Want to Fly)
1998, Acrylic on Canvas, 50 x 50 cm
A ghostly dress floats amidst an abstract background patterned with blue spotches and speed-marks, which echo a batik technique called mega mendung. These references to clothes and textile reveal traces of Murni’s personal history: When she was a teenager, she worked as seamstress at a clothing factory in Jakarta owned by the Chinese-Indonesian family that hired her as a domestic worker. Created in 1998, it is also one of Murni’s earlier works that still contains a vivid background pattern, as opposed to the more simplified backgrounds in bold colours that marked her later work—reflecting the influence of her training in the Pengosekan style, which employed crowded backgrounds.
Yet, the absence of a human subject here is instructive—Murni is showing here vestiges of a past life, in which she no longer exists. The title, translating to “I Want to Fly”, perhaps reveals her desire to metaphorically seek greater heights. Tellingly, it was after Murni worked as a seamstress that she decided to return to Bali and seek independence in her early 20s. When she became an artist in Bali, it was in moving beyond the Pengosekan style that she eventually honed her signature style and voice as an artist. Injecting these symbols of her personal journey to autonomy, Murni reveals how she never let herself be imprisoned by her circumstances. If she wanted to fly, she flew—transforming whatever once held her back into ghosts of her memories, as she carved out her own way.
Tidak Kesampaian (Unattained)
1999, Acrylic on Canvas, 200 x 50 cm
Mengisap Madunya (Sucking its Honey)
1999, Acrylic on Canvas, 200 x 50 cm
An unexplored yet powerful dimension in Murni’s oeuvre is its unique anthropomorphism, in which she imbues objects and creatures from the natural world with the depths and complexities of human emotion. In Tidak Kesampain (Unattained), Murni paints two contrasting subjects: a tall, hard and roughly textured tree trunk in the upper left corner, and a small, soft and delicate flower floating in the middle. They appear as if they were longing to connect, but alas remain painfully separated. The painting’s haunting, olive green background sets it apart from Murni’s brighter, more playful works—bringing melancholy to the distance between the tree and the flower, and instantly evoking sadness.
The title of the work, meaning “Unattained”, alludes to the fragile, helpless feeling of having a desire that could never be fulfilled. Murni was no stranger to this feeling, having revealed her own unattained longing to have children due to her barrenness. Yet in this painting, the tree and the flower do not directly symbolise a mother and her child—rather, the meaning of their relationship and fraught connection remains open and ambiguous. Crucially, the painting reveals the internal pains and desires that Murni may not have verbalised, deepening our understanding of the artist beyond the concrete facts of her life. As much as she was known to be frank about the truths she endured, a part of her remained private and opaque, forever beyond the grasp of a public that was eager to consume her story.
Bermain dengan anak anakku (Playing with my kids)
2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 100 x 100 cm
Two catlike creatures float amidst a bare purple background, save for a few small yellow circles akin to bubbles. With its striped skin, elongated legs and high-heeled shoes, the large pink cat on the left appears mature and defined. The small yellow cat floating beside her on the right, however, barely possesses any defining details and appears almost ghostlike. Cats are a recurring motif in Murni’s works, oftentimes appearing as surreal creatures existing within their own magical realms, morphing into humanoids or mythical animals.
Murni brings them into worlds in which they communicate profound emotions, and at times reimagines herself as these animal characters, giving viewers a glimpse into her own strange dreams and interior life. In Bermain dengan anak anakku (Playing with My Kids), as suggested in the title, the cats share the bond of a parent and child. It is no secret that Murni desired to have a child of her own, despite being barren throughout her life. Yet, in this painting, Murni reveals not only an abstract dream of having a baby, but a very concrete, poignant picture of how she imagines her relationship with her offspring. The small cat hovers close to the big cat and reaches out a hand to its eye, as if wiping away a tear. The action suggests a relationship that is close and intimate, where the mother is not obliged to hide painful emotions from her child. Here, Murni envisions not just the conventional portrayal of a mother nurturing her child, but one where the child could also comfort their mother.
Aku dan Simbolku (Me and My Symbol)
c. 2000s, Acrylic on Canvas, 100 x 300 cm
One of Murni’s largest paintings, Aku Dan Simbolku features a commanding green dragon amid a bright blue background, evoking the sea or sky. Sprawled across the wide canvas, the dragon appears majestic as it boldly asserts its territory. The dragon motif is prevalent in the artist’s cultural context in Bali, commonly found in temples and Balinese woodcarving. One particular myth involves a dragon as the island’s guardian, symbolising both power and protection. Moreover, Murni’s partner Edmondo Zanolini recalls how they would train under veteran Balinese artist I Dewa Putu Mokoh in the old techniques of painting dragons with bamboo brushes and china ink.
Nonetheless, Murni veers away from traditional representations of the dragon by injecting a surreal dimension and her own subjectivity in this monumental piece. Murni replaces the dragon’s head with a blank open book, save for a pair of piercing eyes and full, thick eyebrows. The title, which translates to “Me and My Symbol”, suggests a self-portrait that reimagines the artist as this dominant, mythical animal. The way the dragon morphs, however, reveals the hybrid and changing nature of the creature, and the blank open book evokes a sense of enigma—as if suggesting but ultimately eluding a story. Having survived poverty, abuse, a failed marriage, Murni was open and honest about her life’s tragedies in interviews. In this self-portrait, she projects a brave and self-protective front through the dragon symbol, but simultaneously reminds us that pages and chapters of her story remain unknown—a story only she holds the power to control and express through her art.