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Ben Quilty Opens Up About His Friendship With Myuran Sukumaran

The artist describes how Myuran changed him, changed Australia, and how he might yet change perceptions of the death penalty around the world.

by Angus Smith
05 July 2016, 12:00am

Ben Quilty in his studio. All images by author.

A bright orange life jacket hangs from a metal butcher's hook. It's torn in several places, the insides spilling out. The scent of oil paint fills the room. It smells damp and salty, like the earth before a storm.

Ben Quilty reaches up and pulls some stuffing out. "These vests came off the beach in Lesbos," the artist says. Lesbos is where many refugees first plant their feet on EU soil. He waves the foam in the air like a fan. "Packing foam," he seethes. "It's not even going to float."

The Archibald winner walks over to a smaller vest, "All fake," Quilty says, "some little person wore that. And hopefully survived." These vests feature in his latest exhibition, influenced by his travels to Serbia, Greece, and Lebanon earlier this year with author Richard Flanagan to witness the world's refugee crisis first hand. Today though, this isn't Quilty's focus. Today, he wants to talk about his mate, Myuran Sukumaran.

I've always been interested, as part of my drive, to explain why young men sometimes behave so atrociously.

Quilty first met Myuran in early 2012 after a member of the Mercy campaign forwarded him an email from the Bali Nine ringleader, asking for technical advice about painting. Quilty says at first he was curious about this infamous Australian condemned to die in Indonesia. "I've always been interested, as part of my drive, to explain why young men sometimes behave so atrociously."

At first they just wrote to one another; Myuran asking questions about his newfound passion, Quilty trying to answer them as best as he could. "I sent him some tasks, to make self-portraits. I said, 'Do one a day,'" he explains. "At the end of two weeks [Myuran's lawyer] Julian emailed me and said, 'I don't know what you said to him but look at this photo.'"

It was a photo of the wall of Kerobokan prison. "It was absolutely covered from one side to the other in self-portraits," Quilty tells me.

"Australia hated these boys at first," says Julian McMahon, the barrister who stepped in to represent Myuran after he'd been sentenced to death for a third time in 2006. "First impressions were not great," McMahon admits. "We were dealing with relatively young punkish guys who didn't have a great sense of reality or where this was all going."

Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran behind bars in Bali. Image via

Over the next few years though, McMahon says he saw a change. Myuran—who'd been just 24 years old when he was sentenced to death by firing squad for attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin from Bali to Australia—persuaded the governor of Kerobokan to give him a corner of the prison that wasn't being used. He started up classes: computer programming, t-shirt printing, English, philosophy, dance, and, of course, art.

Art became Myuran's release, even forming part of his legal defence. "We used the art that was being done as a major argument in clemency," McMahon explains. "Everyone could see that what was happening was remarkable." Under Quilty's guidance, Myuran emerged as a gifted artist.

"I said, 'You should escape,'" Quilty has stopped in front of a large self-portrait of Myuran. His loft is packed with them, hanging all around, some leaning against chairs and walls. And it's not just the self-portraits, there are pictures of Myuran's friends and family too. Above Quilty's desk is a giant portrait of Myuran's mum.

He said, 'I thought about [escaping] but if I did that, the life of my mates wouldn't be worth living.'

The plea came from Quilty when he went to visit Myuran one last time in Kerobokan, after he'd lost his final appeal. By this point the guards trusted him so completely, Myuran moved around the prison carrying a big bunch of keys. The two friends walked through the prison together, down some passageways, and into a small room. Four guards and tobacco smoke filled the space. Only two were armed.

"The next door is outside, it's Bali," Quilty recalls. "Myuran took me right through this room and the guards are like, 'Hi Myuran.' He gave me a hug—this is standing at the bloody door—and I said, 'This is the only hope.'

"He said, 'I thought about it... but if I did that, the life of my mates wouldn't be worth living.'"

Quilty motions at one of Myuran's self-portraits—in a style so influenced heavily by his own. It's all thick textured layers and broad deliberate strokes. "He is looking over his shoulder and saying, 'You can take my life, and threaten my...'" Quilty stops himself. He stares intently at Myuran on the wall, and reads the date of the painting.

"16 April 2015. He did this a week before they shot him. This painting is just so defiant, and I think that defiance comes through a sense of knowing your practice, and knowing who you are, and believing in yourself," Quilty pauses again. "And he didn't when he first arrived."

Quilty believes being in Kerobokan changed Myuran and his fellow Bali Nine ringleader, Andrew Chan. It allowed them "to become very good young men; to become honest young men." He admits that this kind of rehabilitation is extraordinary; that many other Australians—even other members of the Bali Nine—couldn't have changed so much.

No one cared that these boys were not Caucasian-looking by the time they died, but everyone cared about that in 2005.

But McMahon suggests Myuran's story isn't just about how he and Andrew transformed during their time inside Bali's most notorious prison. It's also about how Australia met them halfway—mourning their deaths with a humanity that's often missing from debates about the death penalty.

"It's a big journey, but it's not just about them, it's part of Australia developing understanding of the absence of true difference between race and colour," McMahon says. "No one cared that these boys were not Caucasian-looking by the time they died, but everyone cared about that in 2005.

"That's a profound story if you think about it, if you watch how Australia changed in 10 years."

Vietnam just sentenced a 73-year-old Australian woman, Nguyen Thi Huong, to death by lethal injection. She's just one of17 Australians around the world on or facing death row. Yet few would know their names. There are no candle light vigils, no heartfelt 60 Minutes specials. Every living Australian Prime Minister isn't speaking out or taking a stand for them.

And the past few months have been tough for anti-death penalty campaigners. Filipino President-elect, Rodrigo Duterte, has announced his plans to introduce executions by hanging, alongside police "shoot-to-kill powers." Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, has approved the death penalty to be used for sex offenders, as well as announcing his plans to execute another 16 prisoners "immediately after" the Eid al-Fitr holidays that mark the end of Ramadan.

Quilty's studio is filled with Myuran's self-portraits. Above his desk hangs a portrait of Myuran's mum.

But there's hope, something Myuran left behind. In 2007, McMahon and others assisted the Indonesian lawyers who represented Myuran in the Indonesian Constitutional Court. One of the findings was that if prisoners are rehabilitated, then after ten years they should be re-sentenced. This argument is now in a draft criminal code, which is before the Indonesian Parliament and may become law. "If it had become law, it would have saved the lives of most of the people recently executed," McMahon tells me.

Quilty spoke to Myuran one last time before he was executed by firing squad in April 2015. "I picked up the phone and he said, 'Is that the second best artist in Australia?" Amidst conflicting media reports—rumours of clemency and intervention by the Australian government—Quilty asked his friend what was really going on. "He said 'It's shit, it's just shit. They are going to take me, but you promise me you are going to put this work out there and continue to fight against the death penalty.'"

"The very last thing he said to me was that 'I'm teaching the others to sing.' And that was the end of the conversation. And then they went out that next night." The media reported the eight prisoners sang "Amazing Grace" together as they were led away to face the firing squad.

Quilty says in the end Myuran had a "strength, grace and integrity... [because] he found his thing. He knew this was going to last way beyond his body. And that's what art is, that's the power of it."

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Tagged:
Art
HEROIN
Australia/NZ
Myuran Sukumaran
Bali
Vice Blog
drug smuggling
Bali Nine
Ben Quilty
Kerobokan prison