Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were my age, in their early 20s, when they got arrested in 2005 for attempting to smuggle 17.6 pounds of heroin from Bali to Australia. Identified as members of the Bali Nine, in 2011 an Indonesian Supreme Court ultimately affirmed death sentences for both men. A decade after their arrest, they were executed.
Australians were torn on their opinion over Sukumaran and Chan’s deaths. Their lives and deeds examined, their sentence debated, nation-wide vigils were held, and like 9/11 or the jolt of Trump’s victory for Americans, many Australians remember what they were doing and how they were feeling the night that Sukumaran and Chan were executed.
As a Watson Fellow travelling Australia, I came upon this story as a blank slate - with neither prior knowledge nor judgment. The facts as they unfolded confused me - heroin isn’t petty weed or molly, yet I was sympathetic to their youth. While still confused about how these two could so brazenly break laws outside of their home country and take such vigilante risks, the sentence they received left me numb for its harshness and finality. Leading me deeper into this intrigue was an invitation from my Australian friend to the opening of “Another Day in Paradise.” Hosted at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, the event was Sukumaran’s first major exhibition featuring over 100 of his works alongside a series of newly commissioned ‘critical interventions’ by 6 other leading Australian artists. As it became known, Myuran Sukumaran, while awaiting death, produced art.
The Art Centre was spacious with high ceilings and glass walls overlooking an outdoor area where speeches would be held to open the event. Openings are usually chatty and social, but this one was different. My friend, a community arts center director, familiar with the usual “Sydney art people,” was quick to observe the atypical attendees of the event - brown people, women in silk saris, friends in suits, elderly couples, Their presence reflected Sukumaran’s ethnic origins - Srilankan Tamilian, I learned. It felt good to see so many fellow South Asians at a contemporary art event. Sitting in the audience were Sukumaran’s family members and friends, Chan’s brother, Campbelltown leaders and community members, Aboriginal Elders, major art directors and curators, and me, a lone American girl who had admittedly no previous knowledge of Sukumaran and Chan or their deaths till arrival. Yet together we stood, sharing not the expected air of reverence for the artist but rather a communal acknowledgement of loss.
Inside the gallery hundreds of oil paintings, mostly portraits, were arranged in themes in different rooms: of the Bali 9, his family, fellow inmates, politicians, and a full wall dedicated to works he made in the final 72 hours of his life. In Sukumaran’s work, you see bold brushwork and vibrant colors. His multicolored strokes are expressive and loose, layering oil paint heavily in an impasto style. The majority of his paintings are self-portraits. Sometimes they feature two selves, one old and the other new, changed, perhaps rehabilitated. Sometimes they feature a blurry, smeared face. And at other times he has an almost fetal body with his wide-eyed and direct gaze. I found his face to have the same characteristic elements, large and innocent features, his facial expression calm and collected. Even though he came across as repeatedly stoic in the face of death, I felt there was a touch of fear in his eyes.
However, it became very clear that the exhibition, and my review, go far beyond the materiality of his practice. One cannot divorce the highly political foundation and context from the paintings themselves. I wondered how each visitor’s political opinion regarding Sukumaran and Chan’s deaths affected their reception of the work. As I stood surrounded by individuals who both knew Sukumaran personally and by people who may not have met him at all, it was evident that most everyone was deeply affected by what most-in-attendance believed was a cruel and unjust death of a young person. During the 10 years Sukumaran and Chan were imprisoned, Australian media drew attention to who the young men were becoming: Sukumaran, a prolific artist and initiative advocate for prison educational programs and Chan, an ordained Christian minister.
After viewing all of Sukumaran’s work, I found myself inside a dark room, in the center of what I believe was one of the strongest works at the exhibition, Matthew Sleeth’s “Kerobokan Portraits (Andrew and Myuran)” (2013). A large-scale 2 channel HD video projection, the work exhibits two larger than life video portraits of Chan and Sukumaran on opposite walls. The viewer is caught in the middle of the two mens’ gazes. Sukumaran is visibly calm and still, breathing gently and staring into you. What is he thinking, how is he feeling? was screaming inside my head in contrast to the silence around me. On the opposite wall, Chan, is different; he’s fidgety but intensely focused on the camera. Beyond the difference of their demeanor, I realized they were both two different individuals. Individuals with two different brains but who had somehow both embodied something hard to describe - a maturity, a groundedness, a wisdom that I could only feel when facing them.
Prison besets a specific set of conditions for those incarcerated. Drilling in the mundane. As each inmate carries on each day without the luxuries of a diverse and eclectic modern world, I can only guess that life is excruciatingly cyclical. Surrounded by the same people and same air of tension, guilt, and anger. If the limitations of physical boundaries and restrictions invoke intense self-introspection, can reconciliation be achieved? How much do we, can we, change in an isolated secular place? The “change” we seek in a prisoner, is intangible- a somehow verifiable expression of guilt and rehabilitation. How is such a change exposed and shared?
In Sukumaran’s case, creative expression was the means through which he changed people’s opinions of him and exhibited loving, warm, and intentional behavior. He pushed for and created Bali’s notorious Kerobokan Prison’s first art school which including painting, computer, and design classes; I watched a tearful interview with a prison guard who considered him like a son; and, in another source I read that when he marched to his death he was saluted by the honor guard present at the execution site. His art and connection to it seemed to provoke endless good-doing and propelled him to share his form of solace with other incarcerated.
“Death of an artist is a silencing of conversation,” Wesley Enoch, Sydney Festival’s artistic director, stated as he and Ben Quilty* suggested that the exhibition was not to be a place of silence and remembrance but instead an exhibition on “how art has the power to provoke change and how justice could be sought if…. rehabilitation were at its core.”
This singular idea ”with rehabilitation at its core” comes on the heels of Dylann Roof’s sentencing back home for his 2015 massacre of 10 women and 2 men at a historically black Charlestown, South Carolina church. Granted that unlike Sukumaran's crimes as a drug dealer, Roof is convicted of shooting people in the peaceful act of bible study - which he committed on a hateful white supremacist agenda. At first, I believed that the death sentence that Roof received was befitting of his crimes, having snuffed out the lives of so many. But now this thought - could Roof be reformed if he served a life-sentence? Encountering the life and work of Sukumaran and Chan, I began to see Roof not solely through the lens of his deeds but as a 19-year old still on the spectrum of growth, a product of an unstable environment and a lack of education. I wonder now if in, say, 60 years, we would hear about a changed Roof, someone who understood his immorality and the repercussions of his deadly hate-crime. What would it mean for others to see the influence of education and empathy on a “once” evil person? Through his possible remorse, growth, understanding - rehabilitation - could he possibly change others? Or does the direness of the death sentence send a stronger message? What, then, do we as a society want in our humanity - revenge, to warn others against criminal intent or a society that believes in ourselves, in the power of our humanity, even amongst our worst perpetrators?
Undoubtedly, Sukumaran and Chan’s crimes as drug smugglers were far from Roof’s as a mass-murderer. But as I stood there in the energy of people who felt pain, anger and loss, surrounded by Sukumaran’s art I was fundamentally charged with the knowledge that it was all created under death row’s psychological inimitable pressure. I came as close as I ever will to Sukumaran’s humanness. I saw him in all his complexity - he felt no different than you and me. His crime was extreme but he made a mistake, just as you and I do too. Did he deserve to die? His work will forever evoke these questions, his paint strokes will forever carry pain, the circumstances will evermore prompt us to remember the meaning and possibility of redemption.
*Ben Quilty is Sukumaran’s friend, mentor, well-known artist and co-curator of the exhibition along with Michael Dagostino, Campbelltown Art Centre’s director.