This article was first posted in Daily Review on 1 May 2015.
I am holidaying in Jogjakarta — planned well before the dismaying Indonesian refusals of clemency which resulted in this week’s executions on April 29. It is unsettling to be in Jogja just after being in London — from one of the wealthiest centers of culture and finance into a place half a world away from affluence. A luxury item like a taxi has a flagfall of 70 cents.
The friendly locals who have spoken to us — hotel and restaurant staff, cabbies, shopkeepers, street hustlers — have blandly asked where we are from — Australia? How long are you here for? Do you speak Bahasa? Have you been to Borobudur? The outrage of Australians have nothing to do with daily life here.
On the day of the executions all of six local papers (in Bahasa) ran the executions on their front pages. As a Dutch expat remarked to us, ‘It’s been covered like a football match’ — in a football-mad country. The only name to make a couple of headlines was Mary Jane Veloso, who was granted a last-minute reprieve. The eight killed were merely named in a list. The consensus feeling here, said the Dutchman sadly, is that drug traffickers deserve death. (A poll at the start of the year reports that 52% of Australians support capital punishment too.)
Sukumaran’s emotive art
It strikes me that what has made the calls for mercy so vivid to us is the fact of Myuran Sukumaran’s paintings. They have been a whole campaign of their own.
If he and Andrew Chan were stonefaced and fatally unremorseful in court, and if much later on in videos Sukumaran proved an appealing personality but less than verbally eloquent on his own behalf, his art has spoken for him.
What can be seen online of Sukumaran’s paintings (he started painting in 2010), have been fascinating as illustrations of his statement: “People can change”. The work has progressed from earnest stiffness, admirable in its attempt but not so interesting as art, to something compelling: a gestural freedom with seemingly unfettered access to his emotions.
His remarkable recent self-portraits are tremendously expressive — palpable with anguish. It is precisely their quality as art that lets them close the gap between viewer and artist.
The paintings gave us a way of ”seeing” and feeling Sukumaran’s plight that no amount of verbiage could convey.
In December 2014, after President Jokowi had declined clemency, Sukumaran emailed reporter Michael Bachelard: ‘Very STRESSED out, we all are”. His pictures are dispatches from the emotional battle lines. That they were so widely reported on — their part in his redemption, their work as a form of appeal — is not incidental.
(The conditions under which they were made would tend to render criticism pointless or tasteless. I will only note that his later work derives from his supportive mentor Ben Quilty, a powerful stylist, whom he met in 2012. But that’s no disparagement — Quilty’s technique demands great control; exploiting its rich expressionism requires ability, hard work and decisiveness — it would be like wrestling with a large and uncompliant snake.)
In an interview with Bachelard, Sukumaran said that art gave him a focus, that it took his mind off the unmentionable (literally so, he couldn’t say the word) — that it was a way of “finding out how I fit in the world”.
That is what art can do for the artist. In this case, what does it do for the viewer? The last self-portraits Sukumaran made show us where he did fit into the world, the existential place and time where he was trapped — they show with utter directness the scream inside, so now we all know how that sounds.