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The art of redemption: Myuran Sukumaran's legacy

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Friday, 1 May 2015


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).

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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.

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Literary 'monsters' fulfill 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 succor 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).

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About the Author

Dr Evelyn Tsitas works at RMIT University and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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