Celebrating Murni & Balinese women artists

MurniPainting by Murni.

Lets consider some stereotypes of Balinese women.

Images of young Balinese woman (circa 1930’s) clad in sarongs, exposing their naked breasts reached Europe at a time when knowledge of this small tropical isle in remote East Indies was practically non-existent. The women’s casual mannerisms along with the alluring breasts were misconceived, suggesting a culture of liberal sexual morality. Very little did the Europeans know of the exotic culture and that the Balinese regard the breast as a symbol of fertility and of the abundance of Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Earth).

Balinese woman are industrious, either at home caring for the family, in the village attending to chores and customs, or working in the fields. Let’s spare a thought for the small armies of women who lug enormous quantities of materials upon their heads all day, from the roads to the many construction sites around Bali. Women spend countless hours meticulously creating the Balinese Hindu religious offerings. Their fingers delicately weaving leaves and flowers into the ubiquitous and beautiful ceremonial masterpieces. The most exploited image of Balinese femininity, immortalized by the tourism juggernaut, is that of the beautiful young lady in traditional costumes, poised gracefully while dancing.

Ni Gusti Ayu Murniashi, 2003, "Boala Raga Sembilan"“Bola Raga Sembilan” 2003 – Murni

The famous traditional expressions of Balinese painting and sculpture are by and large patriarchal. There are, however many talented female Balinese artists who complete their academic art training, yet rarely does one continue on to become a successful artist, much less one with an international profile. Ni Nyoman Sani (b. Sanur 1975) has achieved this distinction.

Sani first had to prove she had the talent and dedication to succeed, and then she gained the trust and confidence of her parents. She now raises two children along with devoting time to her cultural duties, and career. Sani is a painter, photographer and fashion designer, and her expressions reflect the sovereignty and liberation of women.

The Seniwati Gallery of Art was an innovative women’s only collective established 1991 in reaction to the invisibility of women artists in the galleries and museums of Bali. A long time member, Sani was the recent director and a driving force behind the group until it disbanded in 2013.

Murni - "Urine Therapy"“Urine Therapy” – Murni

Women of Two Continents, 1993 by Cokorda Isteri Mas Astiti is an icon of contemporary art by Balinese woman. In the paintings foreground – a beach scene – she depicts Balinese women in traditional costumes carrying offerings, while in the background three foreign women, dressed in bikinis, observe. This is a remarkable composition of contrasts and cross-cultural dialogue.

Indonesia’s most important female artist was the petite Balinese painter I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih (1966-2006).  Murni rose from the life as a child of a farmer, poor and uneducated to the ranks of artistic distinction. Her father sexually abused her at the age of nine. Murni’s compositions explored gender, social and cultural issues, amongst others, in her minimalist figurative style that featured powerful coloration.   Yet most importantly they broke new grounds into the social taboos of gender politics and feminism.

A dedicated member of Senwati, Murni’s first solo exhibition was held at the Seniwati Art Gallery in 1995. Via the courage to confront her darkest memories and emotions Murni’s intuition was instrumental in forging new thematic grounds in Balinese and Indonesian art.

“I paint to feel that I exist” – Murni

I.G.A Murniashi, "Tanpa Judul", 70x70cm, acrylic on canvas.2003“Tanpa Judul” – Murni

A notable work by Murni, “Tanpa Judul” (Without Title) depicts two women holding aloft a huge dripping penis. Her unique art was derived from a nurturing source that assisted her self-healing process, while also seeking to set her free. Balinese tradition encourages figurative expressions of naked and sexual content. According to Balinese Hindu cultural practices artworks are in no way meant to be offensive, rather their intent is to educate and communicate about the essence of life and existence.

“Merayakan Murni / Celebrating Murni” is a new project gathering artists and writers to create works in response to the legacy of Murni at an innovative new art space in Sukawati, Bali – the Ketemu Project Space.

“Merayakan Murni” aims to platform critical discussions on the issues voiced in Murni’s legacy on the topics of gender, society and art. Through a series of workshops, talks, artist in residency programs participants will create works and develop immersive experiences with the public to access the themes raised in Murni’s art practice and life. A group exhibition opening in Bali on the 4th July 2016 will feature work by Murni, alongside the new work created by international and Indonesian participants.

Ni Gusti Ayu Murniasih, 2003 "Playing"“Playing” 2003 – Murni

Kamiliah Bahdar, an independent curator living and working in Singapore, where she is pursuing a Masters degree at the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University will be in Bali from November 2015 to January 2016 to join the residency program at KETEMU. She will be working along side Balinese curator Savitri Sastrawan who has recently completed her Masters degree at Goldsmith University London, the Ketemu team, Yayasan I GAK Murniasih and community members inspired by Murni, to help realize this excellent project.

On Tuesday 8 December 6-9 pm an intimate  discussion  “Murni – Menyingsing Percakapan Baru” will be held at Ketemu featuring Budi Agung Kuswara, founder of Ketemu Project Space, Ruth Onduko, project manager at Ketemu, Mary Northmore – Aziz MBE, founder of Seniwati Art Gallery and other members of the art community. The steering committee of this project is Mondo Zanolini, Valentine Willie and Jean Couteau.

Ketemu Project/ Space is a contemporary art space in Bali that facilitates conversations between art and society.

089618981611 (Agung Dewi)

Facebook: KetemuProject/Space


Perum Taman Asri Blok A No. 3
Jalan Batuyang, Batubulan, Sukawati, Bali

Words & Images: Richard Horstman

*Author’s note: No part of the written content of this website may be copied or reproduced in any form, including article links uploaded to other websites, for any commercial purposes without the written permission of the author. Copyright 2020

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