News & Commentary, Visual Arts

The Art of Myuran Sukumaran: dispatches from emotional battle lines

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I am holidaying in Jogjakarta — planned well before the dismaying Indonesian refusals of clemency which resulted in this week’s executions on April 29. It is unsettling to be in Jogja just after being in London — from one of the wealthiest centers of culture and finance into a place half a world away from affluence. A luxury item like a taxi has a flagfall of 70 cents.

The friendly locals who have spoken to us — hotel and restaurant staff, cabbies, shopkeepers, street hustlers — have blandly asked where we are from — Australia? How long are you here for? Do you speak Bahasa? Have you been to Borobudur? The outrage of Australians have nothing to do with daily life here.

On the day of the executions all of six local papers (in Bahasa) ran the executions on their front pages. As a Dutch expat remarked to us, ‘It’s been covered like a football match’ — in a football-mad country. The only name to make a couple of headlines was Mary Jane Veloso, who was granted a last-minute reprieve. The eight killed were merely named in a list. The consensus feeling here, said the Dutchman sadly, is that drug traffickers deserve death. (A poll at the start of the year reports that 52% of Australians support capital punishment too.)

Sukumaran’s emotive art

It strikes me that what has made the calls for mercy so vivid to us is the fact of Myuran Sukumaran’s paintings. They have been a whole campaign of their own.

If he and Andrew Chan were stonefaced and fatally unremorseful in court, and if much later on in videos Sukumaran proved an appealing personality but less than verbally eloquent on his own behalf, his art has spoken for him.

What can be seen online of Sukumaran’s paintings (he started painting in 2010), have been fascinating as illustrations of his statement: “People can change”. The work has progressed from earnest stiffness, admirable in its attempt but not so interesting as art, to something compelling: a gestural freedom with seemingly unfettered access to his emotions.

His remarkable recent self-portraits are tremendously expressive — palpable with anguish. It is precisely their quality as art that lets them close the gap between viewer and artist.


The paintings gave us a way of ”seeing” and feeling Sukumaran’s plight that no amount of verbiage could convey.

In December 2014, after President Jokowi had declined clemency, Sukumaran emailed reporter Michael Bachelard: ‘Very STRESSED out, we all are”. His pictures are dispatches from the emotional battle lines. That they were so widely reported on — their part in his redemption, their work as a form of appeal — is not incidental.

(The conditions under which they were made would tend to render criticism pointless or tasteless. I will only note that his later work derives from his supportive mentor Ben Quilty, a powerful stylist, whom he met in 2012. But that’s no disparagement — Quilty’s technique demands great control; exploiting its rich expressionism requires ability, hard work and decisiveness — it would be like wrestling with a large and uncompliant snake.)


In an interview with Bachelard, Sukumaran said that art gave him a focus, that it took his mind off the unmentionable (literally so, he couldn’t say the word) — that it was a way of “finding out how I fit in the world”.

That is what art can do for the artist. In this case, what does it do for the viewer? The last self-portraits Sukumaran made show us where he did fit into the world, the existential place and time where he was trapped — they show with utter directness the scream inside, so now we all know how that sounds.

[box]Photos by Getty Iamges[/box]

8 responses to “The Art of Myuran Sukumaran: dispatches from emotional battle lines

  1. I agree with your analysis. The indescribable past four months or so through which the lives of Andrew and Myuran have been lived – has dragged us – the viewers (via our screens/media pages) into a kind of constant horror – I feel it right now as I write – a tingling queasiness both physical and boring deeply into the core of my soul (if I have such)! The worst of torture. We understand why Myuran’s mother and sister could NOT hold it together as they made heart-felt appeals for mercy to the Indonesian President – and in the case of Andrew’s brother who spoke so eloquently and movingly – could only hope that his words might move Joko WIDODO. But it was the portraits which most touched us all – the friendship of Ben QUILTY and other artists, too. And as the countdown continued in earnest those works moved from living portraits to the stages of death to the heart. I hope Myuran intended that final image to signify its eternal presence – and to act as a guide to our furthering of the struggle against capital punishment so that no more people may die in state-sponsored murder whether in Indonesia or in China or in the US.

  2. So true. Thank you for writing this article Mr Chong – for those of us that have followed the story of Sukumaran’s evolving passion for art and his friendship with Ben Quilty – his work has helped make him real and the paintings have expressed his pain and emotion along the way.

    I hear many people say that the media have made these men into ‘heroes’ or ‘celebrities’ and why hasn’t there been an outcry for other people on death row? .. Your article has made me reflect on the power of Myu’s artwork in showing us that some leopards really do change their spots ..

  3. “his art has spoken for him.”

    Yes. And speak it does. I, too, find Myuran’s work, together with his story, incredibly, incredibly powerful. Thank you for your story, Mr. Chong.

  4. Thank you Mr Chong. I see Myu’s art ( not through the eyes of an art critic, which I am not ) as an overwhelmingly powerful expression of the emotions of a condemned but rehabilitated man, from hope to torment and finally to his dignified acceptance of his terrible and unjustified fate. I hope Myu’s paintings continue to be exhibited around the world as a visually haunting reminder that we should never cease the fight against the death penalty. These images will be forever etched on my mind. Bless you Mr Chong, and bless you and thank you Myu.

  5. Friend, his art is somewhat good. And I agree with yer assessment. But Dali or Titian it is not. What could be expected of a self confessed drug kingpin? A masterpiece? I doubt it friend. What does this mean fer the victims of the poison he was trying to sell? I do not know. But I know this. He’s dead now.

    God bless the fine artist folks of Bali, and God bless Billy J. Jack.

    1. With all due respect, your comment is self righteous and ignorant. Dali was a regular drug taker, who was largely unable to meet even the most rudimentary of life’s obligations. You are confusing the artist with the person. Whether or not you believe that Sukamaran was a good or great artist has nothing to do with him being a ‘self confessed drug kingpin’. That is entirely separate to whether or not his art is good, great or average. You clearly have no real understanding of what art ‘is’.

      1. Well said Audrey. To add to your comment I would like to say to Billy J. Jack: You heartless bastard! He and Andrew were rehabilitated. They deserved a second chance. It was within the power of the President to grant clemency, as per the Indonesian penal code. Flailing political presence of the President within Indonesia and the need to bolster his image lead to the UNNECESSARY deaths of these two Australians. It was politically motivated, state sanctioned murder. Disgraceful! And you Billy, are a callous, unfeeling ignoramus! Not qualified or worthy to comment on art or life. Everyone deserves a second chance. Every heard of “Let he without sin cast the first stone”? You certainly are not that one.

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