In her life and her art, Murni explored openness. truthfulness, agency and authenticity. For herself, for women and, one could argue, for all people of any persuasion. She worked to wake people up to social violence and hypocrisy and to the severance from what she saw as innately natural ties to a wide variety of pleasurable relations.

Astri Wright in ‘Intersecting Worlds, Invisible Dimensions Visible: Further Explorations in Murni’s Art’.

From left:
Rasanya kok enak ya (Feels strangely good, ya?)
1997, Acrylic on Canvas, 150 x 100 cm

Private Collection

Aku disedot (I’m being sucked)
2000, Acrylic on Canvas, 200 x 50 cm

In the late 1990s, Murni created a series of paintings depicting bare female torsos being penetrated by various objects—from a paintbrush, a pointed shoe to a pair of scissors. At first glance, the paintings unsettle in the face of this jarring juxtaposition of sharp, foreign objects with the tender, private part of a woman. But the paintings’ aesthetic qualities gently alleviate feelings of discomfort, pain and even violation: the paintings possess bright, pleasant colours, and the subjects show no traces of wounds or blood. Standing firm, these half-bodies appear to welcome rather than reject the objects. Their titles strengthen this interpretation: translated into English, some of them read: “It Feels Strangely Good”, “My Pleasure”, and “Lulls Me to Sleep.”

From left:
Kenikmatanku 27 (My Pleasure 27)
1998, Acrylic on Canvas, 100 x 50 cm

Private Collection

Menbuatku Terlelap (Lulls me to sleep)
2000, Acrylic on Canvas, 70 x 30 cm

Murni was uninhibited in speaking about self-pleasure with her peers and the media. In one interview, she claimed that painting female masturbation was the best proof that she loved herself. She was not ashamed to reveal the unconventional objects she used to satisfy herself when she was alone, whether it was a shoe or a knife she “moved slowly”.

In the early 2000s, when Murni contributed works to amagazine for an issue that tackled female genital mutilation in Indonesia, the paintings she made similarly depicted the torso and legs of female bodies, with sharp objects about to cut through the vulva. The main difference lies in the bodies’ position: rather than standing firmly, the body would be sitting or lying down, with an external figure opening up the legs and inserting these objects through. The titles would allude to ceremonial traditions, rather than to personal sexual pleasure. Perhaps in these subtle yet significant differences, Murni intended to distinguish, rather than blur, the line between self-pleasure and violence.

Feminist art historian Wulan Dirgantoro further illumines the emphasis on boundaries present in this series. She notes how the objects, in their positioning beside the genital area, underline the delicate borders of the body—the border that stands between what is inside and outside, permissible and taboo. While at first evoking pain, their location outside the most intimate part of the woman’s body could also double as a form of protection from attack—and even perhaps as a potential weapon. Beyond notions of pleasure or transgressed bodies, Dirgantoro opens up a crucial reading of these works in which the female sex could be seen not only as a victim, but a powerful threat.