“Celebrating Murni”: life, legacy and memory of Indonesia’s IGAK Murniasih – artist profile

Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space in Bali celebrate Murni’s groundbreaking artistic practice and the 50th anniversary of her birth.

IGAK Murniasih, aka Murni, is a significant figure in contemporary Balinese and Indonesian art history, as she was a pioneer in openly engaging with feminist discourse in her artistic practice, including overt representations of sexuality and the subversion of social and gender taboos.

IGAK Murniasih, 'Story of Bangkok', 2003, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

IGAK Murniasih, ‘Story of Bangkok’, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Two years in the making, a series of programmes and exhibitions in Bali taking place throughout 2016 are dedicated to the life, legacy and archive of the late Indonesian female artist IGAK Murniasih (“Murni”).

In collaboration with Sudakara Art Space, the Ketemu Project Space commemorates Murni’s 50th birthday by presenting a group exhibition called “Merayakan Murni/Celebrating Murni”, running from 16 July to 18 September 2016. The exhibition presents important artworks from IGAK Murniasih alongside work by 15 international guest artists who provide their own context and perspectives drawing inspiration from Murni’s legacy. In addition to some of Murni’s own works, the exhibition also includes special artworks by Indonesian artists Dewa Putu Mokoh and Oototol.

Murni was a prolific painter and became one of a few female Balinese artists to become successful in the mainstream Indonesian art scene. Her emboldened spirit challenged art conventions in Indonesia by her constant exploration of female sexual desire and the female body.

IGAK Murniasih (Murni). Image courtesy Ketemu Project Space.

IGAK Murniasih (Murni). Image courtesy Ketemu Project Space.

Murni: becoming an artist

Born in 1966 in Tabanan, Bali, to a poor farming family, Murni (d. 2006) had little choice but to start her working life at an early age. Returning to Bali, Murni married in 1987, however, unable to have children her husband took in a second wife and Murni began divorce proceedings. According to historian and critic Carla Bianpoen in an article in 2007, “Murni broke the customary laws and became the first Balinese woman to legally divorce in 1993″.

From the early 1990s Murni took control of her own destiny. She met her lifelong partner, Edmondo Zanolini, an Italian artist living in Bali. Murni began her artistic practice under the tutelage of I Dewa Putu Mokoh, a master of the Balinese painting tradition known as Pengosekan technique. The three often painted together. Zanolini mentioned that “she was the most incredible and creative of the three of us”, quoted in the book Indonesian women artists: the curtain opens (Bianpoen, Dirgantoro et al, 2007).

IGAK Murniasih, 'Tangan daun (“Hand Leaf”)', 1994, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

IGAK Murniasih, ‘Tangan daun’ (Hand Leaf), 1994, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

In conversation with Art Radar, Mary Northmore-Aziz, founder of all-women art space Senawati Gallery and host of Murni’s early exhibitions, mentioned that they only became aware of Murni’s traumatic childhood experience of being raped by her father after the artist’s interview with a Spanish broadcaster. It could be said that Murni’s unconventional life and her personal trauma provided her with the urge to challenge social taboos and the perception of Balinese women through her creative process.

Breaking the taboo: pain and pleasure of female desire

The subjects rendered in large format, Murni used the Balinese Pengosekan technique, combining her own innovative palette of bold, bright primary colours as background with dark outlines. In a 2004 article in Kompas, “Tamarind: Menggarami Seni Rupa Bali”, art critic Hardiman Radjab noted this technique as “ground breaking for Balinese art”. During her early artistic career Murni drew on her personal experiences with a touch of humour that became part of her visual language. Murni was able to demonstrate how the experience of trauma and memory could be turned into something positive by representing her themes as both pain and pleasure.

IGAK Murniasih, 'Nyut, Nyut', 2001, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

IGAK Murniasih, ‘Nyut, Nyut’, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Art critics and curators have been challenged by her unconventional representation and Murni’s ability to depict sexual intercourse in such an open, honest and at times violent manner. However, in recent years writings on Murni by two Indonesian women art historians, Wulan Dirgantoro and Farah Wardani, have illuminated a fresh reading of Murni’s visual artworks.

Nyut, Nyut has no literal translation; it describes a throbbing sensation. Nyut, Nyut (2001) shows a woman wearing boots with tentacle-like arms protruding into her stomach and vagina. Attention given to objects such as shoes can also be seen in the works Setiap saat aku beroda (2000) and Untitled (2004).

Setiap saat aku berdoa, IGAK Murniasih, '(“every time I prayed”)', 2000, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

IGAK Murniasih, ‘Setiap saat aku berdoa’, (every time I prayed), 2000, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Art historian Wulan Dirgantoro explains the representation of this style thus:

The juxtaposition of the objects in the paintings shows that the objects are in fact underlining the fragile borders of the body. The orifice stands as the border between what is inside and what is outside of the body, or what is permissible and what is taboo.

Nyut, Nyut (2001) manages to evoke the idea of both internal pain and the pleasure of motherhood. Murni developed her own technique of morphing objects into body shapes, some of which even have intercourse with each other. These types of representations can be seen as liberating. Art historian Farah Wardani sees Murni’s work as

[…] a different part of women’s sexuality, a narcissistic desire to reclaim her own body that has been violated so many times, [the body is] taken by others to enjoy. In copulating with each of its own organs, the body rediscovers itself.

 IGAK Murniasih, Untitled, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 195 x 145 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

IGAK Murniasih, ‘Untitled’, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 195 x 145 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Symbol of sexual liberation

Wardani’s observation is key to understanding how Murni became important from a feminist perspective, and her meteoric rise in Indonesia and the international art scene. During the time that Murni began to exhibit, Indonesia was going through a transitional period in its political history.

In Indonesia, the early 2000s were known as the Reformasi era, after the fall of the dictatorship of President Suharto‘s New Order regime in 1998. It was a time when suddenly women were able to be free and express their sex and sexuality through writers such as Ayu Utami and other feminist voices. In a conversation with Art Radar, Wardani mentioned that

it was the time of ‘sexual liberation’ where women could relate to Murni’s scenes and sexual symbolism because for so long the idea of sex and female desire were viewed as subversive ideas and therefore taboo under President Suharto’s regime.

For these reasons, Murni plays an important part in Indonesian’s art history and women’s art history.

 IGAK Murniasih, 'Trimakasih Tuhan (“Thank God”)', 2003, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 40 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

IGAK Murniasih, ‘Trimakasih Tuhan (“Thank God”)’, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 40 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Keeping Murni’s artistic legacy alive

The exhibition “Celebrating Murni” organised by Ketemu Project Space provides the first steps, following the artist’s wishes, in keeping her memory and legacy alive and for the public to enjoy her artworks.

Alongside Murni’s, on display are contemporary artworks by 15 local and international artists, including invited ones such as:

  • Citra Sasmita (Indonesia)
  • Edmondo Zanolini (Italy)
  • Imhathai Suwatthanasilp (Thailand)
  • Made Bayak ft Karitika Dewi and Damar Langit Timur (Indonesia)
  • Marieke Warmelink (Netherlands)
  • Mella Jaarsma (Indonesia)
  • Mintio (Singapore)
  • Natasha Lubis (Indonesia)
  • Ngakan Putu Augs Arta Wijaya (Indonesia)
  • Punia Atmaja (Indonesia)
  • ILA (Singapore)
  • Wawi Navarroza (Philippines)
  • Wholesome Nila (Singapore)

New up and coming female curators Savitri Sastrawan from Indonesia and Kamiliah Bahdar from Singapore have chosen the artists to complement Murni’s influence, style and themes.

Exhibition highlights include works by two women artists, Cirtra Sasmita, a young local Balinese artist and Marieke Warmelink, an international artist from the Netherlands.

Similar to Murni, Sasmita is from Tabanan, Bali and the genesis of Sasmita’s artistic practice is also unconventional. She is a physics graduate and a self-taught artist. She sees the challenges that Murni faced and the issues relating to Balinese woman in society as still relevant today, including sexuality, stigmatisation, stereotyping, conventional norms and identity.

 Citra Sasmita, 'Mea Vulva, Maxima Vulva', 2016, mixed media installation, 180 x 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Citra Sasmita, ‘Mea Vulva, Maxima Vulva’, 2016, mixed media installation, 180 x 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Sasmita’s artwork Mea Vulva, Maxima Vulva (2016) is suspended from the ceiling, as a huge hanging structure of a metal scales, balancing a number of different sculpted white ceramic shapes of vulvas. On the floor, placed on a round mirror, is another set of sculpted ceramic vulvas. The curators state that

the ceramics characterise the consumerist fantasies shaped around an ideal of femininity that are fed to women through mainstream media, social values and cultural pressures. […] the vulvas represent women who are shown on top of the balancing scale as being appreciated while the rest are left to remain at the bottom of the pile.

Marieke Warmelink is a female artist from The Netherlands who studied Media, Film, Graphics and Fine Arts. She has developed her own artistic practice engaging with how gender roles can be explored through local communities by creative filming and performance art.

Marieke Warmelink, 'Husband for a Day', 2016, video, 5m:00s. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

Marieke Warmelink, ‘Husband for a Day’, 2016, video, 5m:00s. Image courtesy Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space.

In her short film A Husband for a Day (2016) she captures a snapshot of reflection, thoughts and silent moments of an old Indonesian woman working on a food stall. Warmelink is the old woman’s husband for the day. The old woman responds to her husband for the day:

“You never want to know what I am doing – you are not interested. I am not angry because it is our destiny. It is better to be a man, he is happier – for Balinese woman it [life] is difficult.”

Warmelink’s engaging film employs actors who reflect the ‘norm’ of the power structures and roles that continue to exist in Balinese societies.

Following a conversation with Art Radar, Warmelink and Sasmita both agree that Murni represents a celebration of womanhood and Murni has shown courage by smashing social taboos. Murni represents a role model for Indonesian and Balinese women and therefore, the treatment of her legacy and her assets needs to remain in the public domain.

 Samantha Teo, Co-founder of Ketemu Project Space. Image courtesy Ketemu Project Space.

Samantha Teo, Co-founder of Ketemu Project Space. Image courtesy Ketemu Project Space.

Re-imagining Murni: need for a public foundation

Samantha Teo, the co-founder of the Ketemu Project Space states

The push to realise Murni’s intention to establish and maintain a public foundation was inspired by not only Murni’s practice but also Murni’s future acumen.

Art historian Dr Wulan Dirigantoro told Art Radar that “Murni is the first female Indonesian artist to receive this type of attention.”

Samantha Teo acknowledges that currently in Indonesia there are no laws and regulations that are specific to the safeguarding of cultural assets and therefore the artist’s legacy. The treatment of cultural assets is the same as any other inheritance.

In order to continue the awareness of Murni’s legacy and archive, the Ketemu Project team are using tools at their disposal, such as social media and panel discussions to promote the public foundation. On 27 August 2016 at the Sudakara Art Space in Bali, discussions and debates took place on the themes of re-imagining Murni with a focus on whose responsibility and right is it to uphold Murni’s legacy.

Murni once said, “I paint for the feeling I exist.” The existence and preservation of a public foundation dedicated to Murni will ensure that future generations will be reminded of Murni’s power and strength to break social taboos and celebrate the pain and pleasure of womanhood.

Paramita Leertouwer-Gupta

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Related Topics: Indonesian artists, painting, feminist art, art and sexuality, art and politics, art and society, gallery shows, events in Indonesia, artist profiles

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