Tuggeranong Arts Centre, Canberra, April 2018
Another Day In Paradise is an exhibition of paintings by Bali Nine detainee Myuran Sukumaran, curated by Sukumaran’s mentor Ben Quilty and Campbelltown Arts Centre Director Michael Dagostino. After being found guilty of heroin trafficking by an Indonesian court in 2005, Sukumaran was imprisoned for ten years in the notorious Kerobokan Prison, where he painted prolifically and started an art school within the prison.
After all avenues of legal appeal were lost, Sukumaran was executed by firing squad at 12:25 am on 29 April 2015. Sukumaran’s art captures with poignant dignity the reserve of inner strength that he found to call on. In many works, there is the sense that art was a vessel for him to capture and preserve a part of himself as he faced the knowledge of his certain death. The act of painting provided more than respite from the violence of prison life and the emotional tumult of death row- it allowed him to look to his legacy, one that is inescapably both personal and political.
Another Day In Paradise, according to Dagostino and Quilty, “invites us to consider how art has the power to provoke change and how justice could be sought if, rather than punishment and penalty, human rights and rehabilitation were at its core.” The challenge of the exhibition is to peer into the darkness, and to keep looking.
Of all the work on display, Sukumaran’s self-portraits best capture the essence of the exhibition. He frequently depicts himself with his chin tilting up looking at the viewer, softly defiant, almost daring us to keep looking at a reality that is easiest to look away from. As the act of looking in the mirror and really seeing oneself, self-portraiture is also an act of reckoning, and captures the way that art was, for Sukumaran, a redemptive practice.
To me, some of the self-portraits resemble sketches of an accused in a court dock, and signify an appeal by Sukumaran to those who would judge him. These works, all untitled, feature the subject and background in white, with bare strokes of coloured paint sketching basic facial features and the outline of his t-shirt. If these images were produced during a court trial by another artist, his identity would be reduced to simply being a criminal, yet he looks defiant, even dazzling, as his direct stare emerges from the whiteness. As I looked at these works, I couldn’t help but think of that biblical pronouncement, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It is particularly poignant in the context of what was then an ongoing media frenzy that he would intervene this way in the portrayal of himself and his life. In these paintings, I see a man who is owning his past and asking to be given the opportunity to atone.
The self-portraits convey what public perception doesn’t: complexity. Hidden within the walls of Kerobokan Prison, there was the Myuran Sukumaran that most people never got the opportunity to know, but now can through his art. The Myuran who was previously a heroin addict and convicted drug runner, was also the Myuran who advocated for prisoners’ medical needs and the rights of female prisoners, who pulled fellow detainees out of fights, who established education courses within the prison, and who guarded the gun cabinet during riots after the guards had fled. Sukumaran acknowledged the many facets of his existence, and is quoted in the exhibition catalogue saying:
My lawyer came to see me, to prepare for our final judicial appeal… “You need to come away from the dark side and step into the light,” he said. I don’t know if he was aware of it, but it had a profound effect on me. It was one of those moments when you just understand. I had always dreamed of becoming a hero… taking stock of my life at that moment, it dawned on me how far off course my life had come… I was the guy I always despised in my fantasies and dreams.
Some of the self-portraits capture this duality. There are several in which he appears as a double, as though he were twinned. Both faces gaze at the viewer, one defiant with the chin up and the other direct, resigned. He comforts himself, an arm enveloping his torso in a lonely embrace. In another, he appears to be watching over himself, a sorry reminder that though he has come so far the future holds no further possibilities. The motif of the double serves as a visual representation of his extreme introspection through which he sought redemption, and the strength that he had to find within himself to make that happen.
A number of self-portraits have a nightmarish quality that evokes parallels with Edvard Munch’s surrealist masterpiece The Scream. In these pieces his features are obscured with paint that is scraped across his face or dripping from it as though he is melting, or vanishing like a scream into a void, which imparts a keen awareness of the impending disintegration of his physical self.
The brutality of the death penalty is most evident in his final series of self-portraits, which he painted between March 15, when he was moved to the island Nusakambangan, and April 29 when he was executed. The heart features prominently, symbolising both life and the taking of it. One painting is of his heart as a disembodied organ alone on the canvas, with streaks of red paint dripping from it. In another, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the red outline of his heart which occupies the white cavern of his torso – a poignant invocation of the execution process, whereby a doctor marks the heart of each victim to show the firing squad where to aim.
This motif is repeated throughout the self-portraits from this period. In many works, his torso is painted white, with the veins and arteries of his neck clearly visible, but they hang suspended above an empty space where his heart should be. The starkness of these images suggests that, through his introspection, Sukumaran attained some sort of intellectual intimacy with the manner of his execution, a testament to his resolve to face the end with dignity. This is also suggested in the paintings of AK47s – the precise weapon that would be employed by the firing squad. Sukumaran painted the guns dripping from every orifice, raising the question of exactly who has blood on their hands. Perhaps it is also a symbolic reversal of power relations. As his brother Chinthu wrote in the accompanying catalogue, “It is sad that those who order the executions never have to pull the trigger or look into the eyes of those they condemn to death.” Looking at those guns is a stark reminder of what is involved in an execution.
Complementing these works are still-life paintings of objects that embody the central conflict of his predicament: the struggle for redemption in the knowledge of certain death. Some draw on religious imagery, such as crucifixes, and one depicts a pulpit which resembles a scaffold. Again, these works draw attention to the hypocrisy of a notion of justice that does not take into account the notion that people can change. Another still life depicts a bullet upright on a table, casting a bloody shadow back across the wood. At first glance it looks like an or
dinary object, perhaps a water jug, as it is not drawn to scale. But then we realise it is far from ordinary. How does one continue living, let alone live an ordinary life, amidst the long shadow cast by the prospect of execution?
Sukumaran’s paintings are inevitably political. One cannot avoid pondering the futility of the death penalty, or the administration of any system of justice that does not provide the opportunity for rehabilitation, when talent such as this is lost.
This makes it all the more potent when Sukumaran sets out to make an overt political statement. The powerful face off against the powerless in the form of political portraits of Australian Prime Ministers and foreign ministers, alongside Indonesian Presidents and Attorneys-General, which hang opposite portraits of the Bali Nine. On the reverse of the canvas featuring Joko Widodo, Sukumaran wrote in black texter, “people can change.” Possibly the most political is the painting of the Indonesian flag dripping with blood, which Sukumaran asked his lawyer to carry out of the prison facing the crowd after his execution. And there is the final, unfinished self-portrait that, rather than hanging with the rest, is on the floor leaning against the wall as though Sukumaran has just left the room.
What is one to do? It is all very well to be outraged. Outrage is easy. What is not easy is to walk the walk, which, unlike Sukumaran and his family, most of us will never have to do. Dagostino and Quilty honour Sukumaran’s memory by turning the outrage into an ongoing conversation. This is what really elevates the curatorship of Another Day In Paradise – the commissioning of new works that engage with themes in Sukumaran’s art.
The two exemplars for me were the works by Megan Cope and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Megan Cope, an Aboriginal artist, devised a work called Barracoon, which draws attention to the ways in which state violence is enacted against people of colour. The work consists of a barracoon, originally a soldiers’ tent but which later came to house slaves during the Atlantic slave trade, made from bamboo. The roof and floor are made of shredded legal documents from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Indonesian Supreme Court. The word barracoon, originally from the Spanish barraca, is thought to be the origin of the racial slur used within Australia against Aboriginal people. As Megan Cope notes in her preface, Sukumaran faced systemic violence and racism growing up in Australia, and, like many who have such experiences, ended up incarcerated in an institution that reinforces social inequities.
The Days contains 3665 eggs, which represent the 3665 days that Sukumaran spent incarcerated. Above the nest of eggs sits a dove, and above it a low-hanging globe that illuminates the work. Abdullah notes the importance of individual days as the end of a life draws near, and the importance of spending these with the people who understand you best.
In the exhibition, I felt as though I had entered a dark tunnel and glimpsed something awful and powerful. Afterward, I emerged blinking into the sunlight, dizzy and unsteady. The tears I had held back started to fall freely, but in between sobs I could feel my heart beat and my lungs fill with air. I felt remade. On the way to the Arts Centre, my partner and I had joked about the nondescript urban sprawl of Canberra’s southern suburbs. Now as we drove back I was in awe of green playing fields, where children in football jerseys were warming up for training. I imagined them going home at dusk to homecooked meals and the comfort of routine. Another day in paradise. The succession of anonymous intersections seemed more familiar, even homely and inviting. What had previously seemed oppressive now seemed free, and I was grateful that I led an ordinary life.
Another Day In Paradise will be exhibited at the Bendigo Art Gallery from 7 July until 16 September.
All work pictured by Myuran Sukumaran.Reproduced with permission of curators.
Picture credits in order of appearance (top to bottom, left to right):
- Self-portrait, Time is Ticking, 25 April 2015, oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm
- Self-portrait, 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm
- Untitled (double self-portrait embracing), date unknown, oil on canvas, 140 x 120cm
- Untitled (self-portrait), 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm
- Untitled (gun), 2014, oil on canvas, 20 x 50 cm
- The Second Last Day, 27 April 2015, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm