A day with Myuran Sukumaran, a remarkable artist who won't give up in the face of bleak destiny

Ben Quilty, The Sydney Morning Herald

Myu is absolutely devastated. He's describing the emotion of receiving a copy of the letter that details the failure of his final clemency bid and opens up the next confronting chapter in his young life. We're both crying and I'm almost completely lost for words. There is nothing in my experience that empowers me to console this big, quiet man.

Then Myu abruptly stops the conversation and begins another. He asks me if he should pay attention to the description of an artist making the very first mark of a new painting in the dead centre of a blank canvas, as detailed in The Man With the Blue Scarf. I admit that I haven't yet read Martin Gayford's acclaimed biography of British figurative painter Lucian Freud. The conversation then flows more easily as Myu returns to his steadfast hunger for painting tips, techniques and art history.

I first visited Myuran Sukumaran in early 2012 in his Kerobokan prison art studio. He had written to me asking for advice on materials for "making paint thick". I guessed that his supporters had innocently searched the internet for "artist using thick paint" in Australia and my name had bleeped onto a screen. So a member of the Mercy campaign, Mary Farrow handed me a letter he'd written and I was so moved by his honest and incisive questions that I asked him if I could visit and give him a lesson.

When I walked through the concrete entrance checkpoint of the prison I was met by a green courtyard, bougainvillea-covered tennis court and a sea of potted bonsais. Myu was there, shy and quiet, but his huge grin erupted when I announced in front of the warden that I was there to break Myuran out.

Myu then walked me to his art rooms and nonchalantly explained that to eat in the prison, inmates needed $2.50 a day. The average daily wage in Bali was the equivalent of $4 per day and so the bonsai plants that lined the quadrangle were an elderly convict's means of earning enough money for food without further burdening his family. The prison warden allowed the convict's family to sell the more mature bonsais in a Balinese flower market.

Another young convict sets up every day to dry paper-thin layers of ground rice. The rice cakes dry in the sun and are sold to other convicts and prison staff. I was hungry and they looked good. Chickens run the length of the art rooms, hemmed in by flimsy wire against the massive prison wall. 

Over the next 12 months the warden of Kerobokan Prison allowed Myu's creative output to be sold as well, with all the profits pumping back into the art studio. More than 40 convicts from every corner of the world meet studiously every weekday to attend art classes and the paintings that the students are willing to part with are sold in stalls in the bustling tourist markets of Bali.

The art rooms are the result of slow and methodical negotiations with Indonesian authorities by a persistent Myu. His diplomacy skills have put form to his dreams. Last year, Myu completed more than 20 works for his first solo show. Good people in Melbourne held the exhibition, the photographer Matthew Sleeth found space and words to open a show that sold every work but one, and the proceeds fed directly back to the funding of a prison art gallery. By the end of 2015, Myu will be due to finish his Bachelor of Fine Arts by correspondence through Curtin University.

I met his mum Raji for lunch near her home in Sydney's west before I flew from Sydney last week to Hong Kong and Denpasar. She cried. Raji's face is swollen from 10 years of crying. Along with the pain of guilt that Myu constantly feels for his crime, the pain of the savage blow he has dealt to his mum, his dad and his brother and sister is incomprehensible to me.

I had planned last week's visit to Myu months before the Indonesian President Joko Widodo's letter arrived in Denpasar to outline Myu's bleak destiny. Myu meets me at the prison gates and we make for the art rooms. The knuckles on Myu's broad hands are losing their skin pigment. "Vitiligo", he tells me, as we pull plastic chairs up to his splattered palette. "Perhaps from the paint medium, perhaps from turps." We both examine his hands. "Perhaps stress", he says more quietly. I can't help but wonder if the vitiligo had covered his whole body before his arrest in 2005 he perhaps might have had a better chance of surviving this hellish situation – Myu's skin without pigment is the same pale blueish-apricot hue as mine.

Myu has made remarkable progress since my last visit. Every visit I've made to my friend in Kerobokan Prison I find he's made more remarkable progress. In my life I've only ever seen one other artist make this seismic progress at such dizzying pace but she was living in Melbourne with money, a beautiful home and studio. Teaching a student with this rare drive to learn is completely addictive. It has taught me more about the intangible skills that a human needs to make an art practice part of their existence, and more about me. By lunchtime we have taught Myu's class the basics of life drawing, the anatomy of the human skull and the simplest steps to begin the magical process of learning to draw. Myu asks me under his breath if we can spend the afternoon one on one.

Lunch is the only moment we stop making art. As usual, Myu buys me lunch and refuses to accept my money. He takes the conversation straight to his execution. He tells me that his friends in the prison don't know what to say, they're lost for words and so they are staying away from him. He and Andrew Chan have researched the details – standing, sitting or lying down, with or without a white sheet covering their faces to hide the most dreadful act. "I'm not going to take it lying down, Ben," he says. "And I want it on my own terms." His sentences are strong, but the silence between them is gut-wrenching.

Through the stifling humidity of the afternoon, Myu makes a strong little painting of one of the wardens. The warden is there, on a Saturday, wearing civilian attire, on his day off, to be a part of Myu's extraordinary art reformation. He is a young Indonesian man with a warmth that upends the stereotype I have of a man in his position. He sits patient and still, only breaking the pose to lift his hand for a sweet cigarette. Myu warns him that he smokes too much, without pausing his methodical brush marking. For all the years of Myu's incarceration, I've heard through Australia's media how bad Kerobokan Prison is. But if Myuran Sukumaran is anything to go by the Indonesian authorities have done the most astounding job of rehabilitating and rejuvenating this young man.

On Saturday, Myu asked me a question as I hugged him and said goodbye. "Do you think it's actually possible for me to have a career as a painter or am I too old, or is it too late?"

Myu, you're already an artist and if life experience is a guide to creative energy then you have it in abundance, so no you are most definitely not too old. In fact if you get out of Kerobokan one day you will have a job in my studio. But I'm completely gutted to say that I'm not sure if it isn't already too late. Myu's mum, Raji, is worried that the pressure of an imminent firing squad will prevent Myu finishing his degree this year. She has worried more in the past 10 years than most mothers worry in a lifetime.

I told her that as long as he is allowed to live, nothing will stop Myuran Sukumaran.

Ben Quilty is an award-winning Australian artist and friend of Myuran Sukumaran, who is facing a death sentence in Kerobokan prison.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, January 23, 2015.

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