Myuran Sukumaran: Art, Prison And Punishment
As part of Sydney Festival 2017, Campbelltown Arts Centre will host the first major exhibition of art by Myuran Sukumaran, a member of the so-called ‘Bali Nine’ who was sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Indonesia.
During Sukumaran’s incarceration, he was visited by award-winning Australian artist Ben Quilty, who took the prisoner under his wing and taught him the art of portraiture. Now, in the aftermath of Sukumaran’s death, the BRAG presents a story of art, prison and punishment.
On Friday January 23, 2015, Myuran Sukumaran – a British born Australian citizen convicted by an Indonesian court of drug smuggling and sentenced to die alongside his fellow Australian Andrew Chan – painted one of his most striking portraits. Daubed in the warm, earthy colours that define his work, it depicts a middle aged man staring off into middle distance, his lips pressed gently shut.
At first glance, it’s not necessarily obvious that the figure represented is Indonesian President Joko Widodo. In photos, Widodo looks sterner, less beatific. He has a mouth that naturally pulls downwards – the mouth of a man who does not forgive easily.
But there he is in Sukumaran’s portrait: calm, peaceful even. Sukumaran painted the man who ignored his pleas for clemency – the man who assisted, at least through inaction, in having him killed – as though he were a saint, or perhaps someone’s kind, quietly spoken uncle. On the back, Sukumaran wrote a short inscription: “People can change”. Three months later, he was executed by firing squad. He had refused a blindfold.
Sukumaran’s legacy is an artistic one – his catalogue is striking enough to be appreciated even without having to emphasise his execution and the injustice he faced – but it is also one that compels us to rail against such injustice; against an outdated view that ignores rehabilitation and stresses death and punishment over any other alternative.
According to his brother, Sukumaran’s final wish was to “paint for as long as possible”. As long as possible should have meant years. It should have meant for the term of his natural life. That it didn’t – that it instead was a question of a few hours – is a sickening fact, a damnation of a system too broken to provide that most natural of human emotions: forgiveness.
Before his death, Sukumaran had spent nine full years fighting his conviction, lodging appeals and requesting clemency while being moved from jail cell to jail cell. Most of his pleas were only briefly considered – one judicial review was overturned in the space of a day.
Such a punitive attitude was, sadly, to be expected. Indonesia has long maintained a hard-line stance against drugs and drug trafficking: of the 14 people executed by the government in 2015, the year Sukumaran went to the firing squad, every last one had been convicted of a drug-related crime. The only other crime punishable by death in Indonesia is murder.
What was perhaps less predictable was the conservative Australian press’ reaction to the execution. Sukumaran’s death prompted a flurry in media circles, with usually centre-to-right publications like The Daily Telegraph and The Australian decrying the injustice.
The Telegraph in particular launched a full-scale smear campaign against the Indonesian government and, indeed, Indonesia in general – a series of snarling, snapping op-eds with titles like ‘Drugs, Sex And Schoolies: Why Bali Is Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare’ were published in droves. And yet all the while, the paper continued to unironically cover brutal homegrown murder cases in the most lurid of terms, dog-whistling readers who were eager to vicariously lap up the punishment of criminals.
After all, though Australia abandoned the death sentence almost 40 years ago, our justice system has only a passing, surface-level interest in rehabilitation. The prevailing government view of prisons and prisoners is couched largely in the language of punishment, and the media often encourages the general public to view offenders as lost causes.
“There are a lot of things that get in the way of people understanding that people change,” explains Kevin O’Sullivan, a clinical psychologist from the University of New South Wales, who has long studied and worked in Australia’s criminal justice system. “[Rehabilitation] is viewed with scepticism by many, partly based on the inability of people like me to convince the general public that this stuff really works. People change.”
Ultimately, O’Sullivan’s field is one blighted by emotion and muddied by deep-seated views. Despite the fact that studies have already proven the effectiveness of rehabilitation, from a young age Australians are encouraged to consider criminals as inherently ‘bad’, and reform tends only to be discussed occasionally in the form of rare feel-good stories about ex-cons successfully re-entering society. Stories, essentially, that don’t reflect the broader reality.
“It’s about, I think, revenge,” O’Sullivan says. “People just want people to be punished. They don’t particularly have an interest in whether they change. And I think this stands in the way sometimes of good policy.”
O’Sullivan’s sentiment is one echoed by other professionals, including Anita McGregor, the clinical director of the Wentworth Forensic Clinic. “From a systemic perspective, most organisations indicate the importance of rehabilitation,” she explains. “However, there is often a wide gulf between theory and practice. Personal attitudes and bias, as well as pressures on limited resources, often see rehabilitation efforts getting the short shrift.”
Pressingly, rehabilitation has proven value. It’s not a soft science, or a liberal sentiment. However desperately we might want to throw away the key when it comes to our offenders – however strongly we might feel that criminals are always criminals; that blood stains – it is near impossible to do so while believing we’re undertaking the correct or moral action. We can punish all we want. The facts are not on our side.
There is evidence enough that Sukumaran had reformed before his death. The governor of Kerobokan Prison, one of the many institutions in which he was jailed, called him a “model prisoner”. He was even selected to lead a group of fellow convicted offenders, men he soon had a “positive impact on”.
And he painted obsessively, for long periods without a break. Through the art he developed a voice – one powerfully evident now, striking enough to justify the use of the phrase ‘Sukumaran-esque’. He painted in browns and reds. He painted quickly, in rapid, thick strokes. And he painted himself, producing self-portrait after self-portrait.
As O’Sullivan stresses, Sukumaran isn’t an outlier in this respect. Offenders frequently have a pressing need to create; a desire to transform both themselves and how they are viewed by society at large.
“My first office in Long Bay [Correctional Centre] was part of what was called the art program,” O’Sullivan explains. “It was a studio. In there, it didn’t matter who you were. There were murderers. There were multiple murderers. There were people who had done very nasty things. But it was a studio. You worked on your art. It was run by one petite woman. And you produced marvellous stuff.”
Ultimately, as far as O’Sullivan is concerned, such artistic production fulfils a basic human need – one that becomes of particular importance to those imprisoned. Our current justice system is based on the goal of reducing identity; of stripping back the signifiers that make you human, and removing the things about yourself that you recognise and can be recognised for. “In the trade we often say, ‘You go to prison as punishment, not for punishment,’” O’Sullivan says. “Being removed from society is the punishment.”
Art, then, in its most fundamental form, is about learning the language to talk about yourself – to discuss, in the plainest of terms, who you are and what you want. “Art gives you an identity,” O’Sullivan says. “You’re an artist. And I think identity is very important. If you’ve got to choose between being a crim, between being a drug mule or an offender, or being an artist, that’s an easy choice. An ‘artist’ is something to put in your CV.
“Art externalises something. You put it out into the world … That’s something [prisoners] don’t get to do a lot. They live in a very inward-focused, resource-poor, low-expectation world. And to produce something that people can look at and go, ‘Jeez, that’s actually good,’ to prove that you contributed to the stock of the world – that’s amazing. That’s why bands form in jail. People paint and sculpt and whittle. They make stuff.”
That was what Sukumaran was doing: making stuff. But he was also forming himself, re-establishing the boundaries of personality and altering the labels used to describe him. Ultimately, despite its best efforts, the system that executed him – an international system that relies on the depersonalisation of those who offend, that relies on painting reform as some elaborate fantasy – could not undo the work he did towards the end of his life.
Myuran Sukumaran did not die a criminal. Myuran Sukumaran died an artist. There is no system in the world, no matter how broken, that could deny him that.
Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day In Paradise is on display at Campbelltown Arts Centre from Friday January 13 - Sunday March 26 as part of Sydney Festival.