Protest and Survive
On April 29th, 2015, eight men were executed by firing squad in Nusa Kambangan, known as the Alcatraz of Indonesia, where prisoners on death row are taken to await their deaths. While the death penalty is a contentious issue even in cases of hardened criminals committing heinous crimes, in this instance it was even more egregious: these men were each sentenced to death for non-violent drug offenses as part of President Joko Widodo’s hard line against what he terms a national epidemic of drug use, although statistics have repeatedly shown that capital punishment is not a deterrent to drug use and related criminal activity.
Included in the convict group were a Brazilian man diagnosed with schizophrenia, who should not have been tried in a court; Nigerian convicts whose translators were not adept enough for them to understand the proceedings; a Philipine national, a 30 year-old single mother of two sons, who claims she was unwittingly tricked into transporting drugs, spared at the eleventh hour so that she could testify against her alleged human trafficker; and two Australian nationals indicted for attempting to smuggle heroin out of Indonesia. At 24 and full of hubris, Myuran Sukumaran was living with his parents in Sydney and working in a mailroom, but longed for the flashy cars and bling lifestyle celebrated by media culture. With his friend Andrew Chan, 22 at the time of his arrest, Sukumaran plotted to create a drug smuggling ring, known as the Bali Nine.
In jail awaiting a definitive verdict for eight years, Chan and Sukumaran both rehabilitated: Chan converted to Christianity and became a pastor, filling his days with prayer or religious study and counseling fellow prisoners. Sukumaran turned to painting after contacting Australian artist Ben Quilty, who encouraged him to create self-portraits, and answered Sukumaran’s questions regarding materials and techniques. Quilty’s work, with its themes of masculine identity and the flaws in the way young men are inducted into adult society in his community, would have been of interest to Sukumaran, whose own trajectory reflected a troubled adolescence. The prisoner turned his passion into a mission, training other inmates in art skills in the hope to use them on their release. His last request was to be able to keep painting until the hour of his execution.
Crowds of people protesting outside the prison, media-friendly candlelight vigils, as well as the withdrawal of Brazilian and Australian ambassadors to Indonesia, all pale in comparison to the enduring protest of Sukumaran’s paintings. If creativity indeed separates humans from animals, it is most evocative in a case such as this. Sukmaran would pass paintings to his lawyers at each meeting during the turbulent appeals process. Quilty spoke poignantly of Myuran’s thirst for knowledge in an email, saying what impressed him the most about the young man was, “The pace at which he learnt. He was so hungry for knowledge and right up until the last day of his life he was learning about the world, and about himself. He had learnt in three years to communicate with the world, from inside an isolation cell on a prison island infamous for its history of executions.”
I have titled this short essay after the 2000 exhibition in London, curated by Matthew Higgs and Paul Noble, which presented artists from the 1970s who used protest and agitprop methods as a form of art practice. Sukumaran’s tactics represent a form of protest, albeit more aesthetic than conceptual in its fruition: protest against the brutality of an ignorant government that believes capital punishment has a correlation with decreased drug offenses; protest against a late capitalist society, where in the worst case, the disparity between the wealthy and impoverished pushes those less fortunate into acts of desperation and on a less spectacular level, encourages young people to aim for celebrity and material wealth over ethical living; protest against the mortal confines of flesh and blood, so easily extinguished by an unrepentant and extreme legal policy.
Sukmaran’s last painting was an anatomical heart dripping blood signed by his fellow death row inmates who died alongside him. Photographs of this and other paintings being carried off add to the melodrama of this case. While conservative pundits would likely see the work as the literal manifestation of bleeding heart liberalism, Sukmaran’s practice was an elegant form of quiet protest. Whether the paintings have aesthetic merit is less significant than their existence, their long-lasting silent protest against a society that failed a talented and intelligent young man.
KATHY BATTISTA is Director of the MA program in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York, and Senior Research Fellow of the Centre for Global Futures in Art, Design and Media at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. She is the author of New York New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practices and Re-negotiating the Body: Feminist Artists in 1970s London, which won the Choice Book Award in 2013.