“I was worried about my own vagina. It needed a context of other vaginas– a community, a culture of vaginas. There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them– like the Bermuda Triangle.”
― Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues
In 1996, Eve Ensler’s seminal work brought to the fore taboo issues associated with women’s genitalia. A world away, and at around the same time, Balinese artist I GAK Murniasih (Murni) was busy showing the world her ideas about secret shame and body parts enshrouded in taboo.
A curated presentation on Murni’s practice opened last weekend at Gajah Gallery, where a substantial number of the artist’s works are being displayed in Singapore.
The first thing one might notice is that there’s nothing at all dark and secret about Murni’s vaginas. Her depictions of genitalia are garish and almost childishly cartoonish. On the one hand, her works are prime fodder for the ubiquitous art-world insult: “What’s so special about that? My kid could have done it!”
On the other hand, a deeper inquiry into the world that Murni inhabited reveals a complicated exploration into the artist’s personal journey and into Indonesian feminist critiques. Murni has created images of genitalia which are disembodied. The individual parts have no discernible connection to a physical body or personality—they belong to no one and everyone all at the same time.
Her seemingly-crudely executed line drawings speak to a wider understanding of human sexuality and all its attendant complexities. They are perhaps basic and garish because the subject matter is as such. Images of genitalia are juxtaposed against weird and wonderfully perverse interventions. The sharp straight lines of scissors, cactus-like growths and high heels sit alongside the sinuous curves of labial folds, penile tissue, and vaginal openings.
Fellatio, masturbation, violence, and all manner of copulation, are placed companionably next to one another, rendered in a basic, candy-coloured two-dimensional style. There is nothing delicate here, nothing that projects a veneer of sophistication—what you see is what you get.
But, what are you seeing, actually?
Murni’s personal history gives us some clues. Born in 1966 in Tabanan, Bali, she moved with her family to South Sulawesi as part of the New Order government’s transmigration policies. These policies saw families being encouraged to re-settle in more remote parts of Indonesia, in a bid to resolve overpopulation problems. Murni was from a poor family and received only a basic education. As a child, she was raped by her father. At the age of 10, she became a domestic helper, working for a family that had moved from Sulawesi to Jakarta.
Murni eventually returned to Bali and studied art under the tutelage of I Dewa Putu Mokoh. Mokoh was himself a well-known artist, who pioneered the Pengosekan style of Balinese painting.
As an artist, Murni flourished, bucking the norms and choosing to practice the Pengosekan style which she had been taught, but in her own inimitable way. She had received no formal art education and some accounts cite her as the first woman in Bali to ever initiate divorce proceedings. Her then-husband, according to some sources, had wanted to take a second wife as Murni had been unable to bear children. She did not approve of such polygamous practices and sought an escape from the binding confines of marriage. The divorce was only granted years later in 1993, and Murni went on to find love and a life partner in Mondo Zanolini, an Italian artist for whom she also had worked as a domestic helper. Mondo, Murni, Mokoh, and artist Dewa Raram (also known as Oototol) would make art together and Mondo has curiously commented that they were “all in love with” one another, as well as “supportive, open and respectful.”
He explains that they had “enjoyed stimulating each other with anything: a story, some food, and drinks, a photo, a philosophic thought, mixing colours, a dance, a kite.”
Murni’s own difficult personal history coupled with the time in which she was making art in Indonesia, cast a particularly intriguing light on her works. Living in the shadow of New Order-type feminism (a legacy which included the demonisation of prominent women’s movement Gerwani), Murni’s work was antagonistic, controversial and downright confrontational in terms of what it meant to be a ‘virtuous’ woman in Indonesia.
In this day and age, a few line drawings of genitalia would perhaps make for nothing more than schoolyard doodles and jokes.
But to make such works and frame them as ‘art’ at a time when women were expected to be soft, motherly and obedient regardless of what their ambitions might have been–well, that was an entirely different exercise altogether.
As observed in Indonesian Women Artists: The Curtain Opens, Murni’s work was initially rejected by some of the best galleries in Ubud because of her “insufficient education” and the galleries’ fear of “disappointing wealthy conservative customers.”
Murni’s body of work, of course, begs another set of questions—must it always be the case that art associated with women’s issues is crude, angry and graphically in-your-face? Is she just another angry feminist lashing out at the world? Perhaps she can be framed as such. But perhaps the larger question for consideration is what her true motivations were. The authors of Indonesian Women Artists: A Curtain Opens suggest that “Murni herself never had a political agenda when it came to her work.”
Indonesian journalist and commentator Carla Bianpoen who knew the artist during her short life, recalls that Murni’s trauma from having been abused by her own father “return(ed) again and again.”
Certainly, in Bianpoen’s view, “Murni simply painted to get rid of her traumas, and while so doing, her expressions became infused with imaginations of the absurd. She did not strive for any so-called feminist purposes.”
Murni’s art is graphic and may not be the most suitable for the faint-hearted or for general consumption, but it is as much activism as it is art. If Ensler’s secret universe of lady-bits can be likened to the Bermuda Triangle, then Murni’s ‘community’ of genitalia is a gutsy Disneyland of perverse fetishes and brightly-hued delights. It grants us the privilege of access into a world where it was infinitely harder to be a woman, much less a woman artist.
Dive in and enjoy the ride.
The Gajah Gallery Kabinett, a curated presentation of Murni’s works which was initially planned for Art Basel Hong Kong, opened to the public in Singapore on Saturday 21 March and runs till 19 April 2020. Temperature screening, social distancing, and all applicable COVID-19 precautions will be taken by the Gallery.
All in-article images courtesy of Gajah Gallery.