In what to many is a disturbing free expression of human sexuality, her [Murni’s] art offers powerful statements about a woman’s undeniable ownership of her body and mind and which unequivocally state her freedom and right to take full agency of herself.

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

Sembahyang (Worshipping)
2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 170 x 100 cm

Private Collection

Far from moralising, Murni’s sexual imageries are wild and wide-ranging. Painted in bright, loud colours and a childlike, fantastical manner, her bold depictions of sex and erotic body parts stripped away the secrecy and shame typically shrouding these explicit themes. There is unabashed desire, captured in a painting of a heterosexual couple having sexual intercourse. There are allusions to the sacred captured in “Sembahyang”, where an ambiguously gendered figure worships the vulva of a woman seated above her. There is an unsettling picture of violence, as an elongated penis wraps around the body of a nude woman, resembling a snake about to suffocate its prey. But, there is also subtle, playful humour. In “Bencana Tsunami,” an Egyptian goddess-like figure gently strokes a large, dominant blue phallus along with three other slender, disembodied arms—quite literally stroking the male ego, which is vulnerable to deflating without their touch.

This interplay between violence and wit, innocence and maturity, carnal desire and sacred veneration in Murni’s sexual subject matter offers a glimpse into the artist’s personal story and struggles. References to objectification recall Murni’s earliest experience of sex: When she was a child, her father raped her. The abuse scarred her with trauma that haunted her for thirty years.

Yet, as much as her works confronted and served as a release for her pain, they also revealed her complexity and moving journey towards self-discovery. While sex may have once felt suffocating to her, her works also show sex in which female subjects experience power, even joy.

“In Murni’s art, it is not just naked bodies that shock, but naked female bodies. It is not just the naked female bodies, but their depiction in ways that completely defy any acceptable form of prettiness,” art historian Astri Wright wrote in 1999.

2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 60 x 100 cm

Mengecek (Checking)
2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 85 x 60 cm

Amid a culture that favoured women’s purity and passivity, people in Bali in the 1990s were accustomed to seeing the woman’s nude body as a commodity, a glossy object to obsess over: found in calendars that came from abroad, or erotica art by foreign men. Moreover, in the larger context of Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim society, sex and sexuality were rarely discussed publicly. Frank, grotesque expressions of a Balinese woman actively exploring and enjoying her body, in which the woman was no longer beholden to the male fantasy, were taboo—and consequently disturbed local audiences.

Nonetheless, Murni never censored herself. “In my opinion, if my paintings happen to touch on so-called taboo subjects, why should I be ashamed?” she said.

Refusing to confine her creativity and sexuality within social convention, Murni subverted the ubiquitous male gaze and paved the way for other women within her context to centre their own subjectivity in their art—earning her the rightful label as a pioneer.

2001, Acrylic on Canvas, 150 x 100 cm

Private Collection

My Collection
2001, Acrylic on Canvas, 100 x 100 cm

Saat Itu (At That Time)
2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 70 x 69.5 cm

Private Collection

Gayaku 18 September (My Style, 18 of September)
2000, Acrylic on Canvas, 85 x 60 cm

Gayaku 18 September is a rare work by Murni that depicts the whole bodies of a man and woman during sexual intercourse, rather than emphasising fragmented erotic body parts. In an inverted V Kamasutra sex position, the woman has her legs atop the man’s shoulders, lying down in a free, relaxed manner. Her eyes are closed, and her arm begins to morph into vegetation as she falls deeper into ecstasy. The surreal quality of the work harmonises with its title, which highlights a date, the 18th of September, and thus situates viewers within the daydream of a specific memory.

In conventional Balinese sexual practices, women are urged to arrange themselves in bed such that the man is always superior to her. While in practice these notions are typically subverted, it is culturally a wife’s duty to please and serve her husband. Though the painting remains ambiguous in whether or not the subjects depicted are husband and wife, Murni both infuses and challenges these conventions in her work. The man’s head is elevated over the woman’s and adheres to a sacred orientation, but the person in pleasure is clearly the woman. The title, translating to “My Style, 18th of September”, emphasises this point—in this position, she is not merely performing to serve the man, but centring her own desire.

Murni, in what is perhaps her main contribution to women and humanity as a whole, shows the world that women can own enjoy and be sustained by sexual ecstasy, both with a partner and without.

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

Bencana Tsunami (Tsunami Disaster)
2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 170 x 100 cm

In Bencana Tsunami (Tsunami Disaster), an Egyptian goddess-like figure gently strokes a large blue phallus along with three other slender, disembodied arms. In analysing Murni’s erotic themes, art historian Astri Wright stresses the importance of the artist’s cultural context in Bali, where the Lingga-yoni culture rooted in Hindu cosmology remains alive and well today. Lingga-yoni symbols, commonly known as resembling the phallus and vulva, the masculine and feminine, are depicted as the main objects of worship in some temples in the predominantly Hindu island.

Tellingly, Murni also painted “Tsunami Disaster” in the same year that the 2004 tsunami struck and devastated northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The “tsunami” reference in the painting’s title could thus allude to a similarly divine, yet disastrous ‘tsunami’ in the form of an ejaculation. Yet, the presence of the Egyptian figure and disembodied arms stroking the phallus subtly rewrite and assert a sense of power over the situation—as, without their touch, the dominant phallus is vulnerable to deflating; and the looming tsunami can still be stopped.

2004, Acrylic on Canvas, 100 x 100 cm

Private Collection

In 2004, penises became a dominant motif in Murni’s work, which drew controversy for showcasing work that depicted the male nude body. It was also during this time that Murni began to speak publicly about her rape after 30 years of staying silent.

In an interview with Bali Rebound, Murni defended her controversial paintings, alluding to how they freed her from these repressed memories: “I paint like this to get it out of my mind . . . If I don’t do it, I feel like I’m being choked.”

Untitled (2004) serves as a revealing foil to her work Menanti Kedatangan Bapak (Waiting for Daddy to Come), painted a decade earlier in 1994. Both works feature a nude torso, whose head is cut from the frame, rendering the subjects anonymous. In the earlier work, the woman’s figure is conventionally depicted, such that her curves and breasts are clearly defined. Baring her body, she is shown passively waiting for something to be done to her. In Untitled, the figure’s body is more ambiguous, revealing no curves or distinct male or female body parts. Contrary to the earlier work, the subject’s gesture here is active, protective: She grips an elongated purple penis in her right hand, and guards her lower torso with her left arm. Understood against the context of her life at the time, the work subtly mirrors the artist regaining a sense of control: of her body, her story.

Menanti Kedatangan Bapak (Waiting for Daddy to Come)
Acrylic on Canvas, 80 x 60 cm

Private Collection