Facing Death

On a recent visit to the Bendigo Art Gallery, I came across an exhibition by artist Myuran Sukumaran called Another Day in Paradise. The exhibition contains strong themes and some of the images are confronting. It posed a question I couldn’t ignore: “How will we face death?”

Although death could occur for any of us at any time – whether it is while walking down the street, eating a meal or sleeping – we are reluctant to give it much thought. It is a subject we prefer not to discuss as it can be uncomfortable and awkward to navigate.

Myuran Sukumaran was born on April 17, 1981, in London, the first of three children of Sri Lankan parents, Sam and Raji Sukumaran. The family came to Australia in 1985.

In April 2005, Sukumaran was part of the group that became known as the Bali nine. He was arrested by the Bali police after a tip-off from the Australian Federal Police for trafficking drugs. He was sentenced to death and incarcerated in Bali’s Kerobokan Prison.

Sukumaran took up art, becoming a proficient artist. His output was prolific. He believed painting was a means of communicating with the world. His artistic legacy remains intact despite his death. His powerful paintings live on. And his voice can be heard.

I went to the exhibition a second time hoping to gain some insight into facing death. I have chosen a selection of paintings that spoke to me.

One of Myuran Sukumaran’s main subjects was himself. Through his self-portraits, you gain insight into his state of mind. What impressed me was his strength and determination. He stands alone, a powerful presence, resolute, determined not to surrender his personhood.

There is transparency: a readiness to own the truth no matter how inconvenient.

There is knowledge: a conviction that we don’t have to be held captive by our past.

There is resignation: an acceptance that the legal system in Indonesia is complex, intimidating and difficult to read.

There is defiance: a determination not to step down, to surrender. I hear him saying, “You can kill the body but you can’t touch my spirit.”

Myuran Sukumaran’s family visited him regularly throughout his decade-long imprisonment. When his family would visit, he frequently asked them to sit for portraits for as long as the guards would allow. Sitting still in the chaos of the prison was challenging for all.

Myuran painted his mother Raji in 2015. There is sadness. She has a mother’s heart. She worries about the outcome. She can’t distance herself from the image of her son before the firing squad. She weeps silently but she must remain strong. She knows her son looks to her for reassurance. She feels like Mary at the foot of the cross. She knows her son is hurting but she wonders whether there might be something more, something unexpected, something to celebrate.

Myuran Sukumaran was also preoccupied with political portraiture, images of the figures that controlled his ultimate fate. He painted the portrait of Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in 2014. The style of the painting suggests he wanted to capture the President’s humanity, to make a political statement, that all men are equal. His palette is no different to that used for his co-accused.

Although the President is a powerful figure with the authority to pardon he is also the victim of a relentless and unforgiving political system. His decisions reflect what is politically expedient, what will pacify the populace, what will keep the peace. There is no room for wavering, allowing personal sensibilities to influence your thinking.

“They have been sentenced by the court and there is no room for discrimination.”

Although untitled this picture is described as ‘Road towards Darkness.’ What are we to make of the dark cloud, the black void? Is this a reminder of the inevitability of death? Death presents itself as something sinister, rising up, blocking our pathway. Are we to cringe before the spectre of death which looms as unfathomable darkness?

Sukumaran didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to be cast into the dark abyss. He had come to value life, to value his family and the people who had supported him. He wanted a second chance, to find redemption. In many ways he had achieved this while in prison, using the money from the sale of his paintings to build an art gallery at Kerobokan Prison. He also supported the other inmates in their creative pursuits.

Myuran Sukumaran’s final painting before his execution at 12.25am on the 29th of April 2015 was of the Indonesian flag, red paint dripping thickly down the canvas like blood. His lawyer, Julian McMahon carried the work from the prison, face out, so the wet painting was clearly visible to the hordes of media waiting at the prison gates.

What message does the painting convey? Is Sukumaran suggesting that Indonesian justice is cold and calculating, exacting a severe price for wrongdoing? Is he appealing to the Indonesian people to weep over the injustices perpetrated by the judicial system, inflicting harsh penalties on those who are defenceless and overlooking the wrongs of the powerful? Or are they his tears, symbolising sorrow and regret, that he was unable to find pardon, despite evidence of rehabilitation?

The paintings draw me in and I find my thoughts turning to my son, Adam. I wonder how he faced death. How did he view death? Did he consider it a friend or foe? When did he first consider death as an option, an acceptable solution to his problems?

I can’t imagine what he was thinking during those final days, hours and minutes. Did he question whether death was really the answer he was looking for? Did he fear death? Did he consider the consequences of his actions?

Whatever the circumstances, facing death is the ultimate challenge. For many people, death is something to be feared. It has to do with the not knowing. Many people believe death is the end of the road. They see no evidence to suggest there is life beyond the grave.

As the firing squad took aim, Myuran Sukumaran prayed for those killing him and asked forgiveness for Indonesia, the country that ordered his death. Sukumaran was a man of faith. He believed in a God of mercy, a God of justice, a God who promises life evermore to everyone who humbly asks.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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