Above: Ben Quilty with Myuran Sukumaran’s artworks. Image: SydneyFestival.org.au
Standing in front of a painting created by a man poised to meet his death is a uniquely confronting experience.
Unlike watching actors on a movie screen, or reading a story in a newspaper, this actual canvas is the surviving embodiment of those final moments. A story physically preserved in paint and canvas, that has physically travelled from Nusa Kambangan Island, where Myuran Sukumaran was executed, to the walls of an art gallery in Campbelltown.
A journey Myuran will never get to make.
And it strikes me: the strokes of the brush that created this work were the final movements of a body that would, just hours later, never move again.
What would I do with my final 72 hours?
What would I want to say?
Produced in Myuran’s Final 72 Hours
Another Day in Paradise is the first major exhibition by Bali 9 prisoner and artist Myuran Sukumaran, produced while in Kerobokan Prison and during the final 72 hours of his life at Nusa Kambangan Island. Curated by Ben Quilty, the exhibition also features six new commissioned works.
One of the artists featured in the exhibition is Mathew Sleeth, who, alongside his friend Ben Quilty, also ran workshops in the notorious Bali prison. Sleeth was a driving force behind the Melbourne vigil to show support for Myuran when he was on death row. When I talked to him in 2015, he described Sukumaran as one of the best art students he’d ever seen.
“What makes someone a good artist is that they care, that they work hard and they really want to communicate. So Myuran works constantly. He’s really interested in his peers artworks, he’s really interested in the artists and the works that went before him and he’s really interested in becoming a better artist,” Sleeth said
Sleeth believes the way to become a better artist is to practise every day. “It’s the practise of becoming an artist. The ‘everydayness’ of it. The discipline, the focus… the repetition. Those rhythms actually fit quite well into prison life.”
Another Day in Paradise is testament to redemptive power of art, something Sleeth feels strongly about.
“For myself, for many of us without faith, the art studio can be a place of redemption,” he said. “It can be where we have those moments of grace and tranquillity, where we can transcend our everyday situation and with Myu he’s found that through art.”
Haunting Self Portraits
While Myuran painted many subjects, his fellow Bali 9 inmates, his family and friends, the political leaders of Bali and Indonesia that held his fate in their hands, even the AK-47s that would end his life, his greatest subject was himself, a man facing up to his mistakes, living with the consequences of his actions and looking straight down the barrel of his own death.
The myriad number of self-portraits in the show portray an incredible range of emotions and suggest remarkable artistic discipline.
You could come away thinking Myuran was obsessed with himself, but he knew all too well that his life was part of a much greater story. While he couldn’t control his destiny, he could share his response to it; his choice to become a better person than he once was.
Every painting is both personal and political. They’re about the value of his life and every other human life on the planet. But if there is one overarching message in this exhibition, it is this: ‘People can change’.
Sukumaran’s Last Message Summed up in Three Words
When I asked Mathew Sleeth what he had learned from spending time with two men on death row he said: “I feel quite changed. I’ve learnt a lot from Andrew and Myuran, particularly about forgiveness and about taking responsibility.
“Rehabilitation is not about starting out perfect and ending up perfect. It’s about becoming a changed, better person.”
Myuran gifted his lawyer Julian McMahon with a portrait of President Joko Widodo— the man who could have spared his life, but chose not to. He signed the back of the painting with this simple but powerful message: ‘People can change.’
The last painting Myuran ever completed before his execution on April 29, 2015 was of the Indonesian flag, with red paint dripping down the canvas like blood. It was signed by all nine people scheduled to face the firing squad that day. According to the exhibition program, Myuran asked his lawyer to leave the prison carrying the work face out, so that the wet painting would be on display to the waiting media.
In his final act, Myuran showed the world that he knew his story wasn’t about him.
It was about three words more powerful than any firing squad; three words that live on in this exhibition and in the hearts of every person touched by it.
People can change.
See the Exhibition
Another Day in Paradise is showing now at Campbelltown Arts Centre until March 26.
Katrina Roe is a Hope 103.2 announcer and published author.