Menanti Kedatangan Bapak (Waiting for Daddy to Come)
1994, Acrylic on Canvas, 80 x 60 cm
Many of the tragedies that marked Murni’s life were intimately tied to her body. She suffered sexual abuse as a young girl at the hands of her father, leaving her feeling small, powerless and silent about her experience for three decades. At age 10, she escaped her family and found a job as a domestic worker, but soon bore the weight of demanding physical labour on her young, fragile body. In her first marriage, tension brewed between Murni and her husband when she could not bear children—causing her husband to ask for a second wife, and Murni to divorce him. In her late 30s, Murni was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Yet another powerful force threatened to take control of her body—and eventually took her life in 2006, only a few months away from her 40th birthday.
Ada sajah halangaku
(There are always obstacles for me)
Acrylic on Canvas, 150 x 50 cm
Aku di Lovina Beach
(I’m at Lovina Beach)
Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 30 cm
Jangan biarkan dirimu diterkam waspadalah II
(Beware! Don’t let yourself be ambushed)
Acrylic on Canvas, 100 x 50 cm
Jangan Sampai Terjadi Lagi Padaku
(Don’t let it happen to me again)
2001, Acrylic on Canvas, 60 x 40 cm
Observing her diverse depictions of the female figure, one could indeed detect the artist’s nuanced, evolving relationship with her body. Earlier works such as Menanti Kedatangan Bapak and Jangan Biarkan Dirimu Diterkam Waspadalah II showcase naked women in passive positions—as if anticipating something to be done to them. Their bodies are conventionally depicted, emphasising breasts, hips and curves; and their faces evade us—alluding to ambiguous, anonymous identities. In later works, Murni’s bodies grow more grotesque, oftentimes distorted into strange, disconcerting shapes. Crucially, she infuses them with identifiable marks: her soft sculpture Thumb, for instance, is covered in the artist’s signature—boldly asserting her subjectivity and ownership of the body.
Art historian Wulan Dirgantoro connects the grotesque qualities of Murni’s bodies to how trauma survivors commonly experience overwhelmed senses, which the artist poignantly captures in her exaggerated, fragmented body parts. But beyond the narratives of her personal life, the abject figures in Murni’s work are also congruent to the distorted bodies that emerged in contemporary art during her time, in response to the oppressive atmosphere during Indonesia’s New Order period. Murni’s bodies, however, stood out from her male contemporaries for how they fused the personal and the political. According to art historian Paul Khoo, her works articulated not only her own traumas, but also the traumas of the social instability that characterised the earlier years of Reformasi Indonesia. In emphasising the truths endured by one’s body, Murni’s figures remain powerful and urgent in Indonesia and beyond—challenging societies that seek to repress the embodied memories of individual and collective traumas.
Undated, Soft Sculpture in Cotton, 190 x 125 x 20 cm
In 2003, Murni expanded from paintings to three-dimensional forms when she assisted her partner, artist Edmondo Zanolini, in creating soft sculptures. Using the sewing skills she learned as a seamstress, Murni would play with the leftover materials, and began creating her own soft sculptures made of cotton. The results were life-size works depicting the female form, distorted and imbued with enigmatic clues that provoke a story.
Thumb resembles the shape of a woman’s body, with exaggerated curves and a right foot that transforms into a sharp high heel. Across the figure, one will not find details of body parts, but instead, writings scribbled all over—subverting the idea of a pure, untouched body with one that is vandalised. Black stitches of thread reappear across the body, perhaps alluding to a fragmented body being sewn back whole. The most revealing detail of all lies in in the figure’s eccentric shape: while her limbs are lean and long, the figure’s stomach is disproportionally large—likely alluding to a pregnant woman. Considering the biographical nature of Murniasih’s works, one might read this sculpture as an expression of the artist’s unfulfilled dream to bear her own child due to her barrenness—causing tension in her first marriage, and a fraught relationship with her body. Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers that the scribbles across the sculpture are in fact Murniasih’s own signature: a powerful act of the artist asserting ownership of her body, despite external forces and fates she could not control.
c. 2005 – 2006, Iron, 185 x 100 x 50 cm each
After Murni was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, her partner Edmondo Zanolini took her to Bangkok for treatment. During one particular visit to Bali from Bangkok, Murni got in touch with a blacksmith, determined to create iron sculptures. She gave him drawings and paintings showing her plans for the pieces, and by the time she returned permanently to Bali months later, the structures of the sculptures were ready. Resembling a cross between skeletons and birdcages, they depicted headless bodies containing various objects spread out inside them—penises, vulvas, scissors and knives. Murni had instructed the blacksmith specifically where to weld these objects, even as she was weak and frail when she came home. Out of place in these bodies, the objects evoked a sense of intrusion: this time, not only of sexual organs, but of the rapidly spreading disease and the inevitable medical procedures performed on her over the past year.
According to Zanolini, Murni made these sculptures at a time when she knew she would soon die. She chose iron because of its durability—she wanted to leave with something that would last. But they are also testament to her unbelievable courage: her final act of rebellion against yet another powerful force that took control of her body. Until the end, Murni refused to surrender her agency. Around one month after she finished the iron sculptures, Murni passed away.