Earlier this year, I went to meet the Australian, New York-based visual artist Matthew Sleeth at his immaculate, high-tech studio. I was there to talk about one of his projects for an article, but when he opened his laptop, a series of photos appeared on his screen. They were paintings of politicians: Julia Gillard, Joko Widodo, Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott. Their faces were wrought in unusual violence, vibrant reds and yellows and purples in strong, thick brushstrokes; paint dripped from Abbott’s face.
They were nothing like Sleeth’s work, so I asked him who painted them. He told me that the artist was Myuran Sukumaran, a man belonging to the “Bali Nine” who was executed by the Indonesian government over three years ago. These paintings formed part of Sukumaran’s first exhibition, which was held at Sleeth’s studio in 2014. The exhibition wasn’t intended to launch Sukumaran’s career, says Sleeth. It was intended to save his life. It was a plea for clemency.
The exhibition is disturbing not just because Sukumaran’s plea went unanswered. Sukumaran knew his life was in these politicians’ hands. These paintings depicted, in Sleeth’s words, ‘the people who could have done something. The people he thought about every day’. Sukumaran didn’t have the luxury of scoffing at their hollow words, as we do. Languishing in Bali’s Kerobokan prison, he obsessed over them, committing their likenesses to canvas.
Sleeth met Sukumaran while running art classes at Kerobakan prison with fellow Australian artist Ben Quilty. In the five years he spent at the prison, Sleeth watched Sukumaran grow from a troubled 23-year-old into a centred, magnanimous man and a talented painter. Sleeth says that Sukumaran was “one of the hungriest artists [he has] ever met”. Sukumaran had developed his practice so quickly and deeply that Sleeth believes that his series from Nusa Kambangan—where he was executed—will become as important as Nolan’s Ned Kelly series to Australian art history.
Sukumaran wasn’t ignorant of his talent either. He called Sleeth on the day before his execution. With no one to sit for him, Sukumaran’s art reached a higher, more abstract level. Instead of painting others—like the series he did of the politicians—he turned inward. He painted himself. At the end of the call, as they were saying goodbye, Sukumaran said: ‘They’re killing me just as I’m getting good.’
On Wednesday, 10 October, a new film by Sleeth about Sukumaran’s last 72 hours was shown nationally for World Day Against The Death Penalty: Guilty. Part documentary, part video art, the film bears Sleeth’s unmistakeable signature as a visual artist, with precise and stylised recreations soundtracked by samples—the Indonesian jungle, media soundbites—which composer Robin Fox weaves, in tonal freedom, with a minimalist electronic score. Though these scenes hang together in a coherent, compelling whole, it remains, like Sleeth’s earlier video art, cinema for the gallery.
And, just as art played a central role in their friendship, so it does in Guilty. Sleeth shows us Sukumaran in his cell, frantically painting one of his self-portraits as the guards politely arrange for his execution. Instead of raging against his fate, Sukumaran creates. This is what he wants to leave behind. This is how he will escape.
In one of these scenes, Sukumaran uses similar colours to the other pieces he painted while on Nusa Kambangan—reds and browns and greys and whites—but instead of the confident, generous, Lucian Freud-esque strokes of his other work, the colours run, in violent liquid and scrapes, distorting his face. On the back of the painting, Sukumaran titled the piece: Self-portrait beneath the shadow. This captures the heart of the film. Sleeth shows us little of Sukumaran before these last few days. His film is a tightly focused portrait, not so much of Sukumaran, as of the condemned man. It is a portrait beneath the shadow.
Sleeth’s film shows us that an execution of this kind doesn’t just take a life; it desecrates the most sacred of moments for a person and their family. It stains death with profane noise. From his cell, Sukumaran is forced to listen to guards sawing wood to make the post that they will tie him to, while a cacophony of jabbering media, a baying populace and cynical politicians plays in the background.
I asked Sleeth why he made the film. He said that his project was to break down the ‘absurd equation’ that the answer to a crime, however serious, is death. This ‘equation’ is laid bare by Sukumaran himself in one scene, where he is asked by Indonesian officials to sign his death warrant. He stands and makes an impassioned speech: ‘It is true that I was a criminal. But it also seems true that you want to tie me to a post and shoot me’. Sleeth wanted to make a political abstraction of an execution visceral, forcing his audience to watch, in real time, a detailed version of Sukumaran’s death.
This was not the part of the film that affected me most. I was speaking recently with my Mum and Dad’s cleaner, Karen, about Sukumaran. Karen is an artist, and she cleans houses to help her ‘ruminate.’ She was cleaning the windows with Windex, and I asked her whether she knew Sukumaran’s work. She stopped wiping, looked at me knowingly, and said without pause: ‘He showed us how to find solitude in the chaos’. Even against this mad and violent backdrop, Sukumaran created. Karen had seen an exhibition of his work at the Bendigo Art Gallery earlier this year, which included the raw self-portraits he painted while on Nusa Kambangan. ‘Maybe all artists are close to death,’ she mused.
These words were an insightful observation of the artist’s condition—what does an artist require if not solitude in the chaos?—because they saw through the execution that Guilty portrays. Instead of seeing a tragedy or a cause, Karen saw a man and his message. The achievement of Sleeth’s film is that it exposes the full horror of the ‘administrative machine’ of a state-sanctioned murder, and the power of the oeuvre that Sukumaran left behind is the evidence of the real and vulnerable existence of the man.
In one scene, we are offered a glimpse of the phenomenon behind Sukumaran’s execution: why would anyone want someone to be put to death? The scene shows an Indonesian judge hand down the death sentence to Sukumaran. As the Judge says the Indonesian word for death, “mati”, a man standing behind Sukumaran begins jumping up and down, not unlike an excited schoolboy, shouting: “Mati! Mati! Mati!” The answer to this man’s reaction, I think, is less about the execution than it is about Sukumaran himself. This man was not blind to the violence; it is violence he wanted. He was blind to the humanity of Sukumaran.
The most powerful scene in Guilty is when the families spend their last day with the condemned. Ignoring for a moment the stone walls and the guards on watch, the image is almost idyllic: containers of food and a thermos on a table; grass and trees beneath sunlight; children playing and laughing. It is the only moment where Sleeth permits the prisoners their humanity. And in that humanity, you see the full weight of this horrible punishment. As Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca knew, the soulfulness of a story like this doesn’t live in the wound, but instead on its rim. In the same sense, this goodbye—and Sukumaran’s art—sits on the rim of his execution.
Guilty ends in the same place that Sleeth and I started this conversation: Sukumaran’s exhibition. The camera follows Sukumaran’s mother Raji through a gallery as she considers her son’s portraits. She walks into a dark room to watch a video that Sleeth made of Sukumaran while visiting the prison. It is Sukumaran, looking back at the camera, micro-expressions of joy and sadness flickering across his face. It is the first time we see Sukumaran unfiltered, as he was. This final moment serves as a reminder that at the heart of this tragic story, if beneath the shadow, stood a man, his friend and his art. Maybe it is here, rather than steeped in the tragedy, that we may begin to break down this absurd equation.
Sam Flynn is a writer from Melbourne. His work has appeared in Archer Magazine, Swampland, Right Now and an upcoming selection of essays by Brow Books, Going Postal. You can follow him on Twitter at @oldunderhead.