Murni’s art not-Murni to who? (1998)

Emerging woman artist in Bali shocks local audiences.

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 3 June 2012
This article is the submission copy of a previously published version in the Jakarta Post published in 1997 or 1998.

Something is a-foot in Bali. Shoes with just the barest hint of legs disappear up into the sky. Tall boots with a life of their own cross streets in the rain. High heels smile from one end of a naked body. The front tips of a rainboot opens up into the leering smile of a tantric elephant traversing wet streets. A pointed shoe charts its course, aiming between the legs of a naked female torso.

What is this? A cartoonist with a shoe-fetish? An Italian shoe factory’s creative new campaign in Asia? A code language only the initiates of an unknown secret society understand? No, no, no. What’s up is Murni. Named “pure”, Murni is a young woman who in the last few years has begun to paint subjects that are not only original, provocative, funny, but also taboo to most Balinese.

A self-taught painter who returned to her childhood love of painting in her late twenties, Murni, now 31, is on the threshold of becoming known, nationally and internationally, as one of the most original younger artists in Indonesia. This artist’s originality is rooted in a combination of her personality and her history: self-taught, she has not been made to jump through the art historical and technical hoops which 99% of younger Indonesian artists go through in art school. Since she has lived in a village in Bali and not partaken much in urban culture, she is more inured than most to the fashionable trends in the art world. Since she lives a fairly reclusive life, she has experienced few outer influences. The drawback to being self-taught is that Murni, as she herself admits, needs technical instruction to improve her skills with her materials. The strengths lie in the freshness and individuality of her visions as they are translated into the group of themes she likes to paint from different angles. These strengths are evident to anyone with the ability to communicate with art beyond the level of the price tag. Murni paints images which her subconscious and her imagination offer up during [her dreams while sleeping and awake]. The forms these images take combine qualities of aesthetic naiveté, childlikeness, and traditional Balinese sensibilities.

Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih was born near Tabanan in 1966. Soon after moving with her parents on a transmigration program, she grew up in Sulawesi with poor access to schooling. Entering the work force at the age of ten, she first worked as a servant and later as a seamstress. In her mid-teens she moved back to Bali to be independent and seek opportunity there. She worked as a silver maker in Celuk, joining the scores of women who work for the businesses that serve the tourist and export industries.

In her late twenties, Murni met a couple of artists, one foreign and one local, who reassured her that is was not at all far-fetched that she might paint, too, if she wished. The message was clear, both from within as well as from her surroundings: try it! And so she did. She learned the rudiments of painting with tempera on canvas from noted and highly original painter Dewa Putu Mokoh. And fortunately, Murni’s return to the realm of drawing and painting coincided with the surge in support for women artists in Bali evident through the founding and efforts of two organizations: one, an art association for women and, first and foremost for Murni, the Seniwati Gallery for Women Artists in Ubud.

Shoes are not the only unusual thing we encounter in Murni’s visual imagination. We also encounter amoeba-like beings, flying figures, animals, flowers and body parts in strange combinations and transformations. There are foetuses, monsters, Egyptian imagery, and erotic imagery, both of couples together and of women or animals pleasuring themselves. These are the images which shock Balinese viewers, especially the women artists who are also struggling for recognition without an inner need or ability to envision their worlds afresh, free from deeply inculcated norms and values.

Perhaps local male viewers of Murni’s works dismiss the sensual paintings as pornography. This is but another way of entirely missing the point, of denigrating her art, and continuing to keep a lid on women’s inherent freedom to paint their own experience. By the end of the 20th century, women’s right to include their own views of their bodies in an art world where men’s objectifying views of women’s bodies are fully accepted, should have been firmly established. Murni joins internationally known artists like Kartika Affandi and Lucia Hartini as someone who claims this right naturally and artistically, and not as part of a political program. Like all serious, not-trendy artists, Murni paints what she has to paint because it demands to be painted, as only she sees and feels it.

The female nude, stylized into shapes with a life of their own, dominates Murni’s work. They do not represent external objects the artist has studied in order to reproduce them on her canvas. Rather they are subjective confessions about the experience of being a woman, with a fully orchestrated range of emotions and experiences, as envisioned from inside the experience. Looking through dozens of paintings— tempera on canvas— we encounter frustration, sadness, longing, happiness, joy and ecstasy.

In a flower-shaped mirror on a bamboo wall is the reflection of a young woman weeping into her long hair, against a backdrop of a hundred breasts. A woman’s torso evolves away from the Greek statue ideal of western art by the cascading long black hair that frames it; her hand, covering her privates, becomes a flesh-coloured flower. Above a domed tower, which hints at sacred architecture, a green forehead with large eyes hovers in the sky— awesome, all-seeing, all-present: a rose blooms from the tower to lodge between the eyebrows.

There is an English proverb to the effect that a prophet is never welcome in his home town. In Scandinavia it has long been the case that any person of unusual talent had to make their fame abroad before they could be accepted at home. This is because most traditional or historically conscious societies are slow to accept unprecedented or unusual ideas— anything new which challenges established norms. Perhaps the practice of merantau (young adults migrating to seek their fortune abroad before returning home), so important in many Indonesian societies, has at times served a similar psychological function.

This is a process one can observe in the modern Indonesian art world as well: training and success abroad goes a long way to making an artist’s career. If foreign curators, collectors and art writers start paying attention, the Indonesian ones follow. While self-taught artists are increasingly marginalized in Indonesia, outside interest can still bypass the emphasis on art school degrees.

This begs the question about the specter of colonial dependency on foreign models and values— a dependency which will naturally be more evident in a field of endeavor as new to Indonesia, and as initially dependent on European models as that of modern Indonesian art. Thus it should not be surprising if an artist like Murni will be embraced by foreign art connoisseurs, even featured abroad, way before she is embraced at home. This process can be disheartening to artists who are as deeply rooted in local as in more universal contexts, but over time, their isolation at home may change.

There is now a beginning interest in Murni’s art shown from Australian curators and upcoming exhibitions in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Italy, some group and some single, are scheduled. It is just a matter of time before Murni is a Name, with a Price, who no longer needs to struggle to finance the materials for her next work or the one or two dreams that she carries in her heart. For now, and for the next few precious months, there is a window of opportunity here for serious and forward looking collectors, who can contact the artist through the Seniwati Gallery in Ubud. Indonesia’s art world, look out!