Ben Quilty launches exhibition of Myuran Sukumaran paintings for Sydney Festival

Artist Ben Quilty surrounded by works painted by Myuran Sukumaran, which will be exhibited at Campbelltown Arts Centre as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival. Photo: Daniel Boud Artist Ben Quilty (right) with Campbelltown Arts Centre director Michael Dagostino (left) and Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch. Photo: Daniel Boud
Nanjing Night Net

Sukumaran was a prolific painter during his incarceration in Bali’s Kerobokan jail and on Nusa Kambangan. Photo: Daniel Boud

With 24 hours left before he faced death by firing squad, Myuran Sukumaran could have been forgiven for wallowing in self-pity and regret. Yet Sukumaran, one of nine Australians arrested for heroin smuggling in 2005, spent his last day of life on the Indonesian island of Nusa Kambangan wielding a paint brush.

His friend and mentor, the Archibald Prize-winning artist Ben Quilty, says Sukumaran was determined to leave an artistic legacy and take a stand against the death penalty.

“The last day on the 28th of April, 2015, Myuran made four or five paintings,” Quilty says. “And he was up all night, as much as he could, with his family around him, supporting him, bringing him food. And he just painted and painted and painted till the end.”

The artworks painted by Sukumaran the day before he was executed last year will be exhibited at Campbelltown Arts Centre as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival.

Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise features more than 100 death-row paintings by Sukumaran as well as works created by seven artists in response to his execution.

One of the new works by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah features a dove nesting inside a circle of 3665 eggs, representing each day of the more than 10 years Sukumaran was imprisoned until his execution in 2015.

Sukumaran was a prolific painter during his incarceration in Bali’s Kerobokan jail and on Nusa Kambangan. He painted portraits of himself and friends inside prison as well as his family including a series of pictures of his grandfather on his death bed in Liverpool Hospital.

“By that point in Myuran’s prison life, he was very well-respected and trusted inside the prison and they allowed him to have a Skype for several days with his grandfather,” Quilty says.

It is one example of Sukumaran’s dramatic transformation from heroin smuggler to model prisoner who was entrusted to run language and art classes for inmates and even have keys to the jail’s medical facility, Quilty says.

The exhibition dwells on Sukumaran’s rehabilitation as well as the death penalty and treatment of prisoners in Australia, according to co-curator Michael Dagostino. “The whole idea of rehabilitation and redemption doesn’t really figure in our justice system.”

Sukumaran and fellow Bali Nine drug trafficker Andrew Chan were two of the prisoners executed by Indonesian authorities in April 2015.

Vigils were held across Australia in support of the pair, who grew up in western Sydney, and senior politicians pleaded with Indonesian authorities for their lives to be spared.

But a poll conducted in January 2015 found that more than half of Australians supported the death penalty for Sukumaran and Chan.

Controversy also surrounds the conduct of the Australian Federal Police in alerting Indonesian police about the Bali Nine, which led to their arrest in a country with the death penalty.

Sukumaran’s life and death also raises intensely personal issues for Dagostino and Quilty.

Dagostino, the director of Campbelltown Arts Centre, says there is a dark side to western Sydney: “Where I live there are drugs around and I’m scared for my son.”

Quilty says he hopes the exhibition prompts a debate about why young men engage in risk-taking and destructive behaviour.

He says Sukumaran paid a tragic price for the type of mistake made by many young men.

“I was locked up. I was arrested,” he says. “Not for anything quite as crazy as that but there was drugs and alcohol and violence. That was my background.”

He adds: “And my group of friends, whoever was the one who was going to go and buy the big bag of drugs was the risk taker who took the risk of actually going to prison for all the mates who then took the drugs and got high.”

Quilty also points out that racism and bullying were a daily reality for Sukumaran during his youth.

“That’s not an excuse and he never, ever looked for any excuse,” Quilty says. “He took his crime squarely on his shoulders but it’s an insight into what leads young men to behave the way they do.”

Quilty says drugs remain an integral part of youth culture.

“I have a son now and I am going to talk about it and I’m going to continue talking about it with him, with his friends, with my community to work out why that happened,” he says. “Why was that drug culture completely ignored by authorities, by society, by our parents, by teaching staff of the schools and universities?”

Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise is at Campbelltown Arts Centre from January 13 to March 26.

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