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Bali Nine member Myuran Sukumaran’s gut-wrenching debut exhibition opens

The title for the first major exhibition of art works by Myuran Sukumaran, Another Day in Paradise, came directly from the executed drug smuggler himself.

Those words appeared in a subject line of an email sent to artist and Sukumaran’s mentor Ben Quilty, following a particularly violent riot at Bali’s Kerobokan Prison.

For the last four years of Sukumaran’s life, he ran an art studio within the prison and taught lessons to his fellow inmates. Sukumaran had access to the prison’s medical facility so that he could test participants for drugs (if there were drugs found within the art studio it would be shut down), which meant that when the riot broke out it was he who had to help.

“There was a machete wound to a man’s leg,” Quilty says. “He sent me these very grainy iPhone photos of him sewing up a man’s leg, and there was just blood everywhere, and the email subject line was ‘another day in paradise’.”

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Now, almost two years after Sukumaran’s death, Quilty is opening the exhibition, featuring more than 100 of Sukumaran’s works completed in prison, alongside pieces commissioned from other artists (Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Megan Cope, Jagarth Dheerasekara, Taloi Havini, Khaled Sabsabi and Matthew Sleeth).

Quilty co-curated the exhibition with Michael Dagostino, the director of Campbelltown Arts Centre, where the show opens this weekend as part of Sydney Festival. Dagostino says he was compelled to host the exhibition in Campbelltown given that Sukumaran grew up in western Sydney, where his family still lives.

“Myuran’s story is a western Sydney story, one of redemption through immense adversity,” he says.

But it’s still a rather gutsy move on the part of both Sydney Festival and Campbelltown Arts Centre to exhibit the works of such a controversial figure.

Although there was plenty of support in Australia for Sukumaran and his fellow executed Bali Nine member Andrew Chan (who features in the exhibition), the community was clearly divided. A poll held three months before Sukumaran’s execution asking “if an Australian is convicted of drug trafficking in another country and sentenced to death, should the penalty be carried out?” received a 52% affirmative response from Australians.

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“There are still a lot of haters in the community,” Quilty says. “And I invite them all with very open arms to come along to this exhibition, and I challenge them to walk away from this exhibition filled with the same hatred towards my mate as they had in the lead-up to his execution.”

Sukumaran became a prolific painter in his final years within the prison, and the exhibition features plenty of never-before-seen works, and a wall of paintings made during his last 72 hours of life.

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One of the works from those final hours sits on the floor, against the wall. Dagostino says that it symbolises Sukumaran’s unfinished business.

While the exhibition features less than half of Sukumaran’s total output, it includes key works known to the public, including his final painting: an Indonesian flag realised with thick red paint, seeming to bleed. The back of the canvas was signed by all nine prisoners facing execution that day.

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Quilty believes that Sukumaran was only just starting to find his own “unique visual language” when he was executed, but that the exhibition demonstrates something quite profound.

“I hope that this show goes a long way to showing not only the healing quality of what an art practice can do, but how much a visual language can change and alter the world, and make people think in a different way,” he says.

When Quilty first came into contact with Sukumaran, he gave him a pile of art books to help him refine his painting skills. He says he’s never seen somebody develop their craft at such speed.

“Myuran was the first person to read those art books from beginning to end. I only looked at the pictures. He read every single word in every art book that I gave him,” Quilty says.

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He also advised Sukumaran to turn the mirror on himself, because he was the most interesting subject that he had. One large wall in the exhibition features 36 self portraits, all grappling with different ways of looking at oneself.

But his subjects also include his fellow inmates, all of the Bali Nine, his close friends and family members, and even the Australian and Indonesian politicians involved in the diplomatic negotiations concerning his case.

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What seems clear is that the exhibition will have a great emotional impact on many who visit, no matter where they stand on the death penalty and the Bali Nine case.

But Quilty says this is a brave and courageous starting point for Sukumaran’s artistic legacy.

“If Myuran only knew that this show was here, with these six extraordinary artists responding … I promised him that this would happen, but to know that it’s happened on this scale …”

Another Day in Paradise is at Campbelltown Arts Centre from January 13 to March 26. Entry is free.

All photos by Document Photography

7 responses to “Bali Nine member Myuran Sukumaran’s gut-wrenching debut exhibition opens

  1. This is a tricky issue. In many ways the paintings are fascinating documents. I wasn’t aware that Sukumaran threatened the other 9. HOWEVER he certainly did not deserve the death penalty. I mean Indonesia didn’t execute all the Bali bombers, only two. Main players are still alive. So hypocrisy is obvious.

    I have always had a real problem with Ben Quilty. Ben’s criticism is too selective: For example it was the Australian Federal Police who “gave” the Bali 9 to the Indonesians. Ben agitate for real change at the AFP to stop this ever happening again! They can still do it!

    In the end to me this soppy art attitude is only ever palliative and NOT REAL POLITICS!!

  2. Ouch there is an interesting judgment in the idea expressed that it takes courage to live well in a free society and that redemption when it seems the only choice is by comparison comparatively easy. Who knows? How easy is it to overcome self justification and self deception, for anyone, especially when you have violated people’s rights through coercing them for personal gain. It takes a turn-around it seems to me. I don’t think he set himself up as hero, others did who seemed to be genuinely moved by him. Vale Myuran, for living your life badly and well, for touching the lives of many, and for many years to come. For making us think, feel and reflect. For exposing us all to things we may want to avoid thinking about and your as well as our solipsism. I had taxi drivers calmly explain to me why the death penalty was a good thing for Bali, (because it is good to have a strong president) as well as one who smilingly told me that their families bailed him out from alcoholism and its consequences financially as well as on his family, time and time again. He was also quite happy for the executions to go ahead and did not see a relationship. There is little rhyme, there are lives lived, well and badly and often in the same life. I can’t accept your execution Myuran and since you and your friends and supporters and the press have made it unforgettable you will keep insisting we care and we think through your story, as well as your art. Thank you.

  3. I went to the opening of this exhibition last night, initially with reservations but this soon altered, as I listened to the very moving speeches from an aboriginal leader, a mayor, a gallery director, a brother, a lawyer and a friend. Most moving of all, I saw a family who bravely exhibited their sons/brothers art knowing that this work and their son would be critiqued. As a mother of two sons I could not imagine the pain they have lived through but I wish to thank them for their bravey to give us an opportunity to see this art and allow for an open conversation to continue.
    The art speaks for itself
    I will remember this exhibition and its opening night for many years to come

  4. I wish I could agree with the sentiments expressed here, but I find the life that Sukumaran led before his incarceration to be utterly repugnent. He used threats of violence against the family members of the Bali nine to encourage them to comply with his directives to board the plane carrying the heroin. He carried none himeself for he was a coward, just staying close by with his threats of violence to make sure the others did what they were told. As for “Redemption through adversity” I dont think we can compare the redemption of a man on death row with that of a man redeeming himself in free society. When behaving yourself is the only option even the most hardened of criminals seem up to the task.
    As for being called a hater, I dont hate Sukumaran, I feel pity for him, it is obliviously a human tragedy. What I find difficult to stomach is the celebration of a man who’s actions in free society were so lacking in regard for his fellow man, this is not a man to deify or portray as a hero, this is the man we pray our children never get mixed up with.

    1. Andy….yes,Sukamarans life before his incarceration was repugnant ….. And if Andrew were here today he would also agree with that comment.But,he reformed himself and turned his life around and in doing so became a new man! This is called redemption and is freely available to all who have done the wrong thing or headed down the wrong path and have chosen to turn their life around….This should be every humans right …..how liberating would that be? Would you not want that for yourself?
      And if one of mine were to fall short and become weak And find themself at the mercy of such a barbaric and inhumane law I Would be horrified as Andrews parents and family must have been…
      My firm belief is we are all weak humans and vulnerable and as imperfect as each other but,deserve to show we can do better….that is what I would want for my loved one too…I pray you will never know the pain and despair of a loved one who makes a mistake and heaven forbid pays with their life….unimaginable and unthinkable…

  5. As an Australian business volunteer (working in Ubud) a local Bali Rotary club asked me to visit him 18 months before he was executed. I Created a few courses to raise money for a vegetable garden inside the prison. I raised 2k US via my courses and a lot more raised by prison artists that involved Myuran. A large sum of money raised but never used as the Governor changed and the concept stopped.
    Many friends believe he and Andrew got what they deserved? He did tell me he’d done four runs with drugs through Bali to AUS and his idea being to do a few more and then start a restaurant. For me did his crime did it fit his punishment, No but Indonesian laws are theirs?

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