Myuran’s artistic voice is raw and premature

Quilty understood the message, even though it was pixelated. Sukumaran was suturing a wound on a prisoner who had his leg hacked with a machete in a prison riot. The email’s title was “Another Day in Paradise”.

This email tells us much about the mythical stories that surround Myuran. The man who once conquered heroin addiction, founded a prisonhouse art school, and was saluted as he was marched to death by his captors’ honor guard is the subject of this email. The email also lends its title to the ambitious Campbelltown Arts Centre exhibition, curated and directed by Ben Quilty.

The Days of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah (2016). Supplied

Myuran Sukumaran’s Another Day in Paradise explores many of the uneasy truths of Sukumaran’s ten-year journey as an insider artist. The exhibition includes more than 100 of Sukumaran’s paintings, along with critical interventions from six leading Australian artists. The collection is the first major Australian gallery to show Sukumaran’s work. According to Dagostino & Quilty, it explores

How art can be used to inspire change, and how justice might be achieved if …. Rehabilitation was at its core.

Myuran Sukumaran. Detail of Jokowi, 2015 with the inscription ‘People Can Change.’ Click to enlarge. Click to enlarge

Sukumaran’s work will not be viewed as strong by many because of its artistic merits if it is separated from its bleak political context. It would be a grave injustice. In critiquing artworks, we are listening to the language of their creators. Sukumaran’s paintings are now part of the Australian cultural vocabulary, having been endorsed by an important regional gallery.

Sukumaran is a young artist who has just completed his first major exhibition. His painting may be up and down, but it reveals his intuition and potential. His exhibited work shows little of the amateur naivety that characterized his earlier attempts, but they are often inconsistent, even when arranged into thematic series.

Myuran Sukumaran, Political Portraits. Click to enlarge. Click to enlarge

The portraits of Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, and other political figures painted from copies are awkward and overworked. However, Tony Abbott’s wine-dark, robust, and critical treatment deserves admiration from his subjects as well as critics. Sukumaran’s Bali 9 series, while accomplished and sobering, is too self-conscious. The composition suffocates a wall of portraits of Sukumaran’s mother. Still, three paintings of his grandfather, who died remotely, become intimate, fluid, and delicate when they are given more space to breathe.

Myuran, Family and Friends. Click to enlarge. Click to enlarge

I wondered if Sukumaran’s best work was when he confronted the trauma of his subconscious. This is evident in the many self-portraits he has painted, where he achieves an intimacy and honesty he cannot reach when painting portraits of other people. Although Quilty clearly influences them, and perhaps also Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon as well, they are still raw and unsettling. He looks out the canvas over and over. His face can be whole, smeared, mangled, or even ripped in half.

He often paints himself on the same canvas twice – this motif almost inspired me to reflect on the dualities in his life. But justice and character are not always so black and white. We can find more evidence of his humanity in the painting itself. His gazes, which are humane, disarming, and intimate, confirm Quilty’s claim that the man Quilty found in 2012 found redemption.

Myarun Sukumaran self-portrait. Supplied

Paint can preserve authenticity or reveal its forger. The artist’s impasto strokes, which are arranged in tangled skeins across the canvas like those of the most influential artists of Sukumaran, take on the appearance of skins that have a great presence even when the artist is absent.

The six artists who were commissioned to respond to Sukumaran’s work, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah (Megan Cope), Jagath Dheerasekara (Taloi Havini), Khaled Sabsabi (Matthew Sleeth), and Megan Cope (Abraham Abdullah), speak out. They don’t shy away from addressing global issues of social justice. Sukumaran’s paintings are interspersed with clusters that engage in the usual debate on art.

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