I’m not here to pry, I promise. I just want to see the artwork and the legacy that was left behind by convicted Bali Nine ringleader Myuran Sukumaran. As an Australian, I’ve been reading Sukumaran’s story across the news headlines for years. In 2005, he was arrested at a hotel in Kuta, Indonesia, where police found 334 grams of heroin in a suitcase. He was sentenced by the Denpasar District Court to execution by firing squad and lost his life on April 29, 2015. However, in the four years prior to his execution, Sukumaran became a star student in the art classes held within the prison by Melbourne artists Ben Quilty and Matthew Sleeth, and it wasn’t long before he became a mentor and teacher to his fellow prisoners.
At first glance, there’s nothing romantic about Bali’s Kerobokan prison. Dilapidated barbed wire dangles limp over the grimy, cracked walls. Pedestrians pass by with urgency. I head inside with my heart in my throat and a weight in my stomach. The interior is surprisingly tidy – bright white tiles with orange walls and black chairs. People sit alone or with their families, waiting to be taken beyond the barrier of administration.
My sister, who is also my Indonesian translator, and I approach the administration desk. Three guards look down at us sternly, their foreheads creased.
“Mau berkunjung penjarawan?” (You want to visit inmates?)
My sister shakes hands with the guard and they speak in Bahasa Indonesiawhile I stand awkwardly to the side. Echoes can be heard from inside the building, the bellowing voices of inmates – perhaps former drug lords or murderers.
“We can’t go in,” my sister says solemnly. A woman approaches carrying a baby on her chest with a harness made from a sarong.
“You need to know someone,” she says woefully. “My cousin is in here.” There’s sadness in her voice, a sadness about the whole room.
She disappears through a heavy steel door, which is unlocked by a nearby guard. I stretch my neck to take a look and see a queue of visitors beyond.
My sister approaches the administration counter again, and asks the guard if we can see the gallery and classroom. He seems hesitant; he seems disinterested but is considering it. He calls out to his superior, who points to the door, shouting at us to leave.
Feeling embarrassed and a little defeated, we proceed outside and towards our scooter. In the distance I spot a run-down and unsightly building made of brick; the windows are soiled and the gutters filled with debris. This is the Napita Gallery, Sukumaran’s donation to the prison. The 34-year-old spent his final years painting images that ranged from self-portraits to a bloody heart and the single bullet that eventually took his life. In September 2014, the convicted drug smuggler showcased his works in a sold-out Melbourne show and donated the funds to the creation of this gallery.
I gaze inside the window of the dingy shed at vibrant splashes of colour. Dozens of painted canvases cover the dull, grey walls and floor. A portrait of a woman wearing nothing but blue opaque beads around her sun-kissed neck leans against a windowsill. She cradles her shoulders and stares intently back at me with a glint in her eye that could depict either hope or despair – I will never know. A tiny foetus lies inside a womb, painted in pink, red and bright yellow oils, over a gloomy, black background. Its eyes are closed and its back is hunched. The canvas rests against an image of Indonesians playing panjet pinang; they have been tinted with huge cheesy grins and are surrounded by a backdrop of open blue skies, endless green grass and palm trees.
The contrast between the feeling of sadness that came with entering the prison, and the hope, love and anticipation that bleeds from the paintings is overwhelming. Sure, the correctional arena will always be a grim one, but in each colourful image I can sense the desperate plea for a second chance. Whether notorious for being a cesspool of corruption or not, Kerobokan is home to hundreds of men and women who are attempting to re-establish their identity above that of an inmate. Sukumaran, despite being the benefactor of Napita Gallery, was not alive for its official opening. His life was taken from him, even after thousands of Australians rallied behind his right to a life and his right to a second chance.
It’s not that Sukumaran was believed to be innocent; it was that his decade-long rehabilitation seeped through the canvas of his artwork. He taught himself to feel again, and he taught some of his fellow inmates to do the same. Sukumaran, along with the other inmates exhibited in the Napita gallery, used art as an expression of his human spirit.
Whether incarcerated or free, true artists are all but indestructible. As Pablo Picasso said, “Even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell”.
First appeared in Global Hobo, March 14 2016