Before his execution by firing squad on April 29 2015, Myuran Sukumaran – convicted drug smuggler, artist and alternately pariah or martyr depending on the colour of your political stripes – emailed the artist Ben Quilty a camera phone photograph from Bali’s notorious Kerobokan Prison, where he had been incarcerated since his arrest in 2005.
Though pixelated, Quilty got the gist. In it, a prisoner whose leg had been hacked open with a machete during a prison riot was having his wound inexpertly sutured by Sukumaran. The title of the email: “Another day in paradise”.
This email tells us a great deal about the competing, almost mythical, narratives that swirl around Myuran Sukumaran. This is a man who, once he conquered the fury of heroin addiction, established a jailhouse art school and when marched to his death was saluted by an honour guard of his captors. The email has also loaned its title to the ambitious Campbelltown Arts Centre exhibition, curated by Ben Quilty and the Centre’s director Michael Dagostino.
Many of the uneasy truths about Sukumaran’s ten years as an outsider artist on the inside are explored in Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise, an exhibition that includes over 100 of Sukumaran’s paintings alongside critical interventions by six leading Australian artists. It is the first exhibition of Sukumaran’s work by a major Australian gallery, and according to Dagostino and Quilty, explores
how art has the power to provoke change and how justice could be sought if…. rehabilitation were at its core.
Many will be unwilling to assess the strength of Sukumaran’s work on its aesthetic merits alone, divorced from the bleak celebrity of its political context. This would be a disservice. All artworks, like their creators, are indebted to their biographies and in critiquing them we listen to their language and evaluate its ability to speak. In any case, Sukumaran’s paintings, endorsed by a major regional gallery, are in the Australian cultural lexicon now.
So here goes: as you’d expect from any emerging artist holding his first major show with fewer than four years’ practice under his belt, Sukumaran’s painting is up and down but reveals intuition and promise. The exhibited works show little of the hobbyist naivety of his early attempts but, arranged in thematic series, they are sometimes inconsistent.
In a series of political leaders painted from reproductions, portraits of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd are overworked and awkward, but a wine-dark, critical and robust handling of Tony Abbott deserves to be admired by both the subject and his critics. Sukumaran’s Bali 9 series is accomplished and sobering, but too self-conscious. In a wall of family portraits a large tribute to his mother feels compositionally suffocated, while three of his respirated grandfather – whose death Sukumaran suffered remotely via Skype and text – become delicate, intimate and fluid when the subject is given more room to breathe on the canvas.
I wondered whether Sukumaran was at his best when confronting the trauma of his own subconscious. There’s evidence for this in his many self-portraits, in which he finds the honesty and intimacy he is sometimes unable to reach in his portraits of others. Though they are heavily indebted to Quilty and also seemingly to Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, they are raw and genuinely unsettling. Over and over again, he looks out of the canvas. Sometimes his face is whole, sometimes smeared and mangled, sometimes his jaw is ripped off in a Baconian nightmare.
Often he paints himself twice on the same canvas – a motif that almost prompted me to make a lazy reflection on the dualities of his life – but of course justice and character are rarely so black and white. Rather, we find the best evidence of his humanity by returning to the stuff of paint itself. His gazes are disarming, human, intimate, and in them it is easy to corroborate Quilty’s claims that the man he found in 2012 had found redemption.
Paint has a power to preserve authenticity or betray its forger. And like the eminent influencers of Sukumaran’s work, the artist’s impasto strokes, arranging themselves in tangled skeins on the canvas, become the skins of bodies with immense presence, even in the artist’s absence.
This presence speaks, and the six artists commissioned for the exhibition to respond to Sukumaran’s work – Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Megan Cope, Jagath Dheerasekara, Taloi Havini, Khaled Sabsabi and Matthew Sleeth – speak back. They do not shy from directly addressing issues of global social justice. Interspersed amongst clusters of Sukumaran’s paintings, they engage his practice in the usual artistic debate previously denied to him.
If these interventions have a flaw, it is that they sometimes overreach, though they have their moments. Khaled Sabsabi’s in memory we trust, featuring three works comprised of layered and cut acrylic glass and paper, supports Sukumaran’s work by inviting the viewer to see complexity in rigidity. Matthew Sleeth’s Kerobokan Portraits [Andrew and Myuran], a dual-channel “moving portrait” of the condemned that requires the viewer to rotate between over life-sized projections of the men, is breathtaking. And yet often against the interventions I found Sukumaran’s voice – raw, premature and brief as it is – more nuanced.
In the final 72 hours of his life on Nusa Kambangan Island, Sukumaran slept only two hours each night. His mother – with unimaginable pathos – worried that he might take ill. He spent his waking hours painting, completing the singular artistic achievement of documenting the life of a man confronting his sanctioned execution and grappling with how to meet it.
Twelve works from this series are included in the exhibition on a single wall and, according to Dagostino, are its finest moment – indeed I wondered whether these paintings exhibited alone would have made a stronger statement. Three extraordinary works replay in my mind. In A Strange Day, Sukumaran’s head appears on a hollow, foetus-like body, huddled in a corner. In Time is Ticking, the bust of a composed Sukumaran is punctured over the heart by a cavernous bullet wound. The Second Last Day, an unfinished work, is left on the floor. They deserve to linger.
Even a cursory glance brands this work unmistakeably with Quilty’s traces. This is after all an unusual retrospective of an artist in the process of his making, but an ungenerous assessment would dismiss Sukumaran’s work as merely derivative. I put the question of this aesthetic dependency to Quilty and he agreed, but he noted that he and Sukumaran had been workshopping the future development of Sukumaran’s practice, as is usual in any master’s atelier. In any case, the voice in Another Day in Paradise is pure Sukumaran, even if the cantata is in the key of Quilty and the concert hall belongs to Dagostino.
Most who see Another Day in Paradise will have already formed strong views about Sukumaran’s debt and the value of its repayment. A few might change their minds. This is a deeply political show with strong critical reflections on trauma, justice and redemption. Quilty goes so far as to say that Sukumaran went to his death
knowing that he had created a visual language that would speak out against the barbarism of the death penalty.
This well may be, but the exhibition stops short of being defined by its advocacy alone.
Moving and meaningful works of art do not always draw from tragedy, but we feel their kinship more when they lean on humanity. The success of Another Day in Paradise is that Sukumaran’s works can be approached in purely human terms. In judging his worth as both an artist and person what Sukumaran, Quilty and Dagostino ask of us is that we look fairly down the barrel, open our eyes and have the courage to shoot straight.
Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise opens at Campbelltown Arts Centre on January 13. Entry is free, details here.