Ketemu Project Space | Murni & the Grotesque
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Murni & the Grotesque

by Kamiliah Bahdar

Depictions of sexual imageries in paintings and sculptures are not uncommon in Bali. Even celebrated Balinese painter I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (1862-1978) was known to depict sexual acts in his works. In the same manner, figures considered monstrous or grotesque are pervasive cultural imageries in Bali.

 

Representations of the Grotesque in Bali

 

An example of a significant grotesque figure is the witch Rangda, a character from a popular Balinese mythology. Maxwell, in Bali: Island of the Gods (2013), describes Rangda as “exhibit[ing] grotesque but recognizably human features with her bulbous breasts, wild shock of hair, and talon-like fingernails—not only characterized in dance, but also in the graphic and plastic arts.” (96) Furthermore, “a vast multitude of witches and ogres have been represented by Balinese artists with all manner of distorted horrifying features, such as clawed feet, gaping mouths with pendulous tongues, pointed ears and, of course, always with the telltale fangs of demons.” (96)

 

Intriguingly, he also explains that Balinese artists convey mysterious evil threats through disembodied figures comprising of weirdly connected human body parts. Additionally, mystical creatures with features drawn from the animal world melded into amazing compositions appear significantly in Balinese art. These mystical creatures are a mix and match of “[t]he trunk of an elephant, the paws and claws of a tiger, the snarling snout and mane of a lion, the wings of an eagle, the plumage of a peacock, the tail of a monkey, the coil of a serpent, the tailfins of a fish, the flippers of a turtle, [and] the horns of a cow” (102).



Comparably similar observations can be made of Murni’s paintings. Grotesque figures, things and acts populate Murni’s paintings, and the paintings shown here are but a small selection demonstrating this. Littered across are deformed heads, contorted bodies, distorted hands with elongated or claw-like fingers, exaggerated male and female organs, disembodied body parts—often breasts or penises—, monstrous hermaphrodites, chimera-like figures, four-legged animals with human feet or wearing heels, as well as suggestions of the consumption of bodily wastes, and depictions of sexual acts considered to be on the fringe. How then are Murni’s depictions of the grotesque different?

 

Part and Parcel of Recognisable and Patterned Iconographies

 

The grotesque figures of Balinese art history follow a coded pattern of symbols and meanings. Couteau, in Bali Inspires: The Rudana Art Collection (2011), observed that in the religiously cemented environment that is Bali, where artistic production were originally deeply entwined with Balinese culture, religion and mythology, “[a]rtists conveyed collective values by using themes and channeling aesthetics canons that were accessible to all” (26) and it is this that accounts for the resilience of Balinese symbolism in Balinese art history.

 

As Fischer, in Modern Indonesian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990 (1990), elaborated, “Balinese painting before 1930 was almost a total reflection of storied Bali, that is, of the folktales, myths, rituals and historical narratives mainly embodied in the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.” (91) Classical traditions of artistic production such as Kamasan paintings take as its focal point “epic heroes such as Arjuna, Rama, Abimanyu and Hanuman. The focus of their painting was on particular scenes or episodes that conveyed the traditional messages of piety, bravery, power, struggle, devotion and wisdom.” (91)

 

In the transmission of such narratives, and its concomitant collective values, creative portrayal of characters was unnecessary since the vices, virtues and physical features of all the important characters—some beautiful, some grotesque—were well known to everyone. Furthermore, the painters had to also follow specific iconographic rules as interpreted from religious texts. Thus, the grotesque figures of Balinese art history are part and parcel of such recognisable iconographies. But Murni’s depiction of the grotesque eschews those iconographic rules, thereby further giving her paintings a transgressive quality.



Murni Twice Breaking with Conventions: Aesthetic and Socio-Cultural Unorthodoxy

 

The grotesque as a concept provides for the possibilities of alternative modes of experience and expressions, and often, challenges the presumed universals of classical beauty. In taking a concept of the grotesque from Connelly in Modern Art and the Grotesque (2003), it highlights how qualitatively different the grotesque figures in Murni’s paintings are in comparison to the grotesque figures in Balinese art history.

 

Connelly does not provide a definition of the grotesque, but rather, she lays out the processes of making the grotesque. She states that the grotesque is used to describe “the aberration from ideal form or from accepted convention, to create the misshapen, ugly, exaggerated, or even formless. This type runs the gamut from the deliberate exaggerations of caricature, to the uninhibited aberrations, accidents, and failures of the everyday world represented in realist imagery, to the dissolution of bodies, forms, and categories.” (2)

 

Furthermore, another central aspect to the grotesque is “its lack of fixity, its unpredictability and its instability. The ideal beauty has only one standard whereas the variations and combinations possible for the grotesque are limitless. Grotesques are typically characterized by what they lack: fixity, stability, order.” (4) A similar process takes over in Murni’s paintings with her use of grotesque figures, things and acts—they do not adhere to the accepted aesthetic conventions as they do not follow the recognisable cultural and religious iconographic patterns, and nor do they convey social messages on morality.

 

Rather, the grotesque in Murni’s paintings stands in, sometimes humorous, sometimes ambiguous, opposition to the dominant orthodoxy. For example, the depiction of phalluses as bananas in Buah kesukaanku (2001) is a hilarious yet ambiguous subversion of its potency and dominance. While in Berdandan (2002), the portrayal of an anthropomorphised pig putting on make-up comically degrades and strips meaning from ideals of beauty.

 

At times, the grotesque offers liberation from the dominant orthodoxy. In Khayalan 17 November (2004) and Disaat itu aku merasa (2002), the exposed bodies with exaggerated sexual organs transgress their own limits, and seem to represent an escape from the confines of what is perceived as normative sexual desires. Similarly, Terapy Urine (2003) and Satu gelas setiap pagi (2003) disobey the rules of culturally constructed boundaries—between that which is clean and that which is dirty to keep at bay pollution and contamination—when the scenes suggest the consumption of bodily wastes that has been expelled. Other boundaries—incursions into the body from without, and the border between human and animals—are again destabilised in Bikin kesenangan dengan ikan (1998), which depicts an act of self-pleasure with that phallic fish, the marlin.

 

Despite the personal origins of the subjects behind many of Murni’s paintings, her depiction of the grotesque engages, confronts and provokes the viewers in its play against the socio-cultural conventions we are all familiar with.



Image List

    • “Aku senang mengoleksi”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 30×20 cm
    • Year: 1994

    • “Orhiba”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 60×40 cm
    • Year: 2001

    • “Mimpiku bintang”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 50×35 cm
    • Year: 1996

    • “Malam di phenompenh 12 nopember”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 60×40 cm
    • Year: 2001

    • “Kerjalah daku”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 90×135 cm
    • Year: 2002

    • “Gajah main terompet”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 80×120 cm
    • Year: 2002

    • “Minuman”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 90×136 cm
    • Year: 2002

    • “Bebek mau bertelor”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 134×90 cm
    • Year: 1995

    • “Show”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 100×100 cm
    • Year: 2003

    • “Terapy Urine”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 100×100 cm
    • Year: 2003

    • “Exsion V (my pablittoku)”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 152×100 cm
    • Year: 2003

    • “Pohon kesukaanku”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 150×100 cm
    • Year: 2002

    • “Khayalan 17 November”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 85×60 cm
    • Year: 2004

    • “My Garden”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 145×197 cm
    • Year: 2003

    • “Ittikku menyushui”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 60×40 cm
    • Year: 2000

    • “Ingin Hamil Dari Pusar”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 135×90 cm
    • Year: 2001

    • “Untitled”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 100×100 cm
    • Year: 2004

    • “Buah kesukaanku”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 60×40 cm
    • Year: 2001

    • “Berdandan”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 74.5×74.5 cm
    • Year: 2002

    • “Satu gelas setiap pagi”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 60×40 cm
    • Year: 2003

    • “Disaat itu aku merasa”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 135×90 cm
    • Year: 2002

    • “Bikin kesenangan dengan ikan”
    • Artist: I GAK Murniasih
    • Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
    • Dimensions: 120×70 cm
    • Year:1998