It is very easy to see similarities between the art work of Myuran Sukumaran and that of his curator, the renowned Australian artist Ben Quilty.
One of the infamous Bali Nine, Sukumaran was convicted of drug trafficking and spent the last 10 years of his life painting his way from the burden of a death sentence to a place of redemption.
Sukumaran’s redemption did not come in the form of physical freedom but a spiritual release which can clearly be seen in the progress of his art in the current Bendigo Art Gallery exhibition, Another Day in Paradise.
Given that Quilty taught and supported Sukumaran when he was incarcerated in Bali’s Kerobokan Prison, it is not surprising that Quilty influenced Sukumaran’s technique and subject matter.
In the work of both artists the use of thick slabs of paint unashamedly evoke powerful emotions. In the case of Sukumaran, the emotions brought forth consist of sadness, loss and of a daring aspiration.
In this poignant exhibition you clearly see, particularly in the section devoted to Sukumaran’s last 72 hours, that he finally found freedom through art – through the very act of creation.
Quilty acknowledges the similarities in style between the teacher and student. “That sort of influence is inevitable,” he said, when speaking in Bendigo recently.
“You can compare painting with handwriting. The marks between us were similar as was the palette.
“But then at a crucial point, the student will start to break away, develop his own style.
“This was starting to happen with Myuran.”
Quilty said it was during the last 72 hours of Sukumaran’s life when he was transferred to Nusa Kambangan island, that the student broke away from the master.
During this time Sukumaran painted non-stop, mostly portraits, only resting for occasional snatches of sleep.
Fellow curator Michael Dagostino says of Sukumaran’s final 72 hours that strangely the work doesn’t feel rushed but rather settled.
“Myuran,” he said, found life in art.”
The various categories in the exhibition give it its coherence.
There is a group of portraits of the Bali Nine, the drug traffickers who were convicted along with Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in 2005 as well as portraits of fellow inmates and prison staff.
There are portraits of Sukumaran’s family and a group of portraits of the well known and influential figures who variously supported Sukumaran’s fight against the death penalty; or conversely believed the drug traffickers should receive the worst possible punishment for their crime.
Ultimately this exhibition is about human rights.
After Quilty began his tutelage of Sukumaran, his lawyer Julian McMahon asked Quilty to advocate on behalf of Sukumaran because Quilty had a profile, a voice.
“I wanted that high moral ground,” Quilty said.
“I wanted it to say how barbaric the death penalty is.”
Quilty says there are people who believe the exhibition, which was first shown at Campbelltown Arts Centre, glorifies criminal activity.
But he believes the issue is more complex than that.
“I asked Myuran why he risked his life smuggling heroin. He told me he wanted a Mazda 121,” Quilty said.
“The newspapers portrayed him as being evil, but he was a wayward young man.
“So many young boys are brought up without hope, without initiation ceremonies.
“They turn 18 and we give them a car and tell them to get pissed.”
Myuran Sukumaran was 24 when he was arrested.
In Kerobokan prison a boy turned into a man who wrote on the back of his portrait of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, “People can change.”
Sukumaran’s work is accompanied by a series of newly commissioned artworks by Australian artists, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Megan Cope, Jagath Dheerasekara, Taloi Havini, Khaled Sabsabi and Matthew Sleeth.
Another Day in Paradise is at the Bendigo Art Gallery until September 16.
– Dianne Dempsey