Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Art of Redemption: Myuran Sukumaran’s legacy

Indonesian lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis (C) displays recent paintings done in prison by Australian drug convict and death row prisoner Myuran Sukumaran. Image: Romeo Gacad/AFP

By Dr Evelyn Tsitas

In the paintings he made in the 72 hours leading to his execution, Myuran Sukumaran’s burst of artistic activity revealed his determination to leave a final mark on the world. His painting of heart, large but fragile, its arteries reaching out from the canvas like vines to the sun, is deeply moving.

Sukumaran’s artworks speak louder than words about the brutality of the Indonesian Government’s death penalty. In those final artworks, the 34 year old Bali Nine drug smuggler also painted Indonesian president Joko Widodo with an underlined inscription on the back: "People can change". 

Close friend Tina Bailey said of Sukumaran’s last paintings: “that canvas is his voice. His life journey is personal, a statement and openness of his heart.” (The Australian, April 29).

There is a good argument to be made that the artworks serve as a very potent reminder of the tenacity and vibrancy of human life, and the brutal finality of the death penalty.

In the widespread anger and dismay that has followed the execution of Andrew Chan and Muyran Sukumaran this week, it is Sukumaran’s artwork which has served as a visual metaphor for the possibility of redemption.

Indeed, in the media narrative on the rehabilitation of Chan and Sukumaran in their decade long incarceration in the Indonesian prison, it is Sukumaran’s artwork that provides the key to his rebirth as a model citizen.

Bailey explains: “You can’t paint without connecting, especially not the way Myu paints and I think it is soul work. My hope is that he is connecting his soul to them.” (March 13) 

 In Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, scientists have been able to clone people and use them as spare parts for organ donations. Asking what it is that makes us human, Ishiguro paints a grim picture of a possible future of slave-donors. In the novel society looks away from the donors so it isn't forced to confront the issue that they might very well be human and have feelings and desires and fears like the rest of us.

At the end of the novel, Kathy and her friend Tommy track down Miss Emily, a teacher at their old boarding school, and ask her why she was obsessed with them doing creative projects such as art and poetry at school. The reason is never revealed to the students, but Kathy H and Tommy propose the theory that their artwork would reveal their inner selves, and that they might be therefore granted a reprieve from donation their organs if they could prove they were really in love. They are told, however, they were encouraged to make art because it was thought it could both reveal their souls and whether they even had souls at all.

Literary ‘monsters’ fulfil many roles. They scare, shock and blur the distinction between human and other. These outsiders can take many forms, such as the Chimera of ancient legend, but it the modern world, the monster among us is the criminal, and in Indonesia, the convicted drug smuggler awaits the death penalty as the ultimate retribution for their crimes.

But in the case of Myuran Sukumaran the outsider has taken up the brush, and painted to reveal a soul. Art allowed him a way to recreate his narrative, and show everyone that humans are complex creatures, capable of great depth, contradictions, and change.

Louis Nowra has written that many Australians seek succour from the arts and that as Australia has become more secular, “so many of us find spiritual and emotional satisfaction in art” (The Weekend Australian Review July 12-13 2014).

Archibald prize winner Ben Quilty mentored Sukumaran for several years, paying regular visits to him in the Bali jail, and Deborah Cassrels noted that Sukumaran – who was awarded his associate degree in fine arts from Curtin University in February this year – “blossomed under Quilty’s mentorship”. (The Australian, Jan 23).

Writes Cassrels; “After two years of serious training, the novice has emerged as a talent…yet the goal was not to launch an art career, but rather to achieve rehabilitation, unattainable without the support of Indonesia’s jail system.” (The Australian, August 6, 2014)
Ben Quilty in turn praised Sukumaran’s “rare drive to learn” and said; “it has taught me more about the intangible skills that a human needs to make an art practice part of their existence, and more about me.” (The Age, Jan 23)

In Never Let Me Go, Tommy, who had such a hard time at Hailsham because he wasn't creative, continues to draw his imaginary animals even after he learns that there will be no "deferral" or delay in starting organ donations. This is part of the outsider’s growth, for despite the fact that society has decided that the clones did not have souls, and therefore there was no cruelty in keeping them alive and using them as needed, they display a free will and creativity of their own.

Like Ishiguro’s clones, Sukumaran’s pursuit of his art did not accomplish the aim of moving those in power to grant him the gift of life. But even after knowing there was no hope, Sukumaran continued to make art, and continued to pursue his academic studies, just as Ishiguro’s Tommy continued to draw imaginary animals.

It is the triumph of the human spirit to make art despite there being no monetary or ‘useful’ value in it. And it is this creative drive – and defiance – in the face of certain death that survives.

It is a sad world that cannot believe in redemption, a bleaker one that turns away from the acts of creativity that nourish the community’s soul in times of both light and darkness.  This is the gift of the artists among us. It shows us what it is to be truly human, in all its messy, faulty, complexity.

Dr Evelyn Tsitas has a PhD in Creative Writing from RMIT, and works as a communications strategist at RMIT Gallery, as well as writing, blogging and teaching.


Anonymous said...

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Colm Barry said...

Whatever the elusive "soul" is, modern science made many studies that seem to suggest that even organs will not function (and hence not be fit for donation) if there is not an underlying human "whole". Organ recipients have long been known to develop traits that the organ donor had and of which they were necessarily oblivious as they had no previous connection with the donor nor did they even know the slightest bit about his/her biography. In most transplant regimes the world over the donor is not made known to the recipients. So it either a kind of intertemporal "telepathy" or, more likely has to do with the all-pervasive neurons that exist not only in the brain and spine but almost all other organs too and may well make up more weight than those of the brain alone. He made an amazing turn-around and even managed to get adegree which shows not only did he never give up true hope but what Indonesian society loses in human "capital" by executing citizens rather than giving them the chance to turn their life around. The even more shocking moment will come when, in not so distant a future, the world at large will declare to have lost the war on drugs and, like with the US alcohol prohibition, legalize all drugs (though they may be regulated). Then all these deaths will be seen together with other "crimes" that once were punishable, not the least the one that killed the greatest mathematician of his time, Alan Turing, though he took his own life.

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