PAR­ADISE LOST

Ben Quilty’s re­la­tion­ship with Bali Nine pris­oner Myu­ran Suku­maran went from art teacher to heart­bro­ken friend, writes Ash­leigh Wilson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

On Novem­ber 10, 2012, three days af­ter Ju­lia Gil­lard flew to Bali to chair a democ­racy fo­rum with her In­done­sian coun­ter­part Susilo Bam­bang Yud­hoy­ono, Mary Far­row went on Facebook to send a mes­sage to the Aus­tralian artist Ben Quilty. Far­row was a sup­porter of Myu­ran Suku­maran, the Bali Nine drug smug­gler who had ap­plied for pres­i­den­tial clemency four months ear­lier. Suku­maran, then 31, was fac­ing death. His ap­pli­ca­tion said he had been “work­ing to bet­ter him­self” be­hind bars.

Far­row didn’t know Quilty per­son­ally, but had seen his Archibald Prize-win­ning por­trait of Mar­garet Olley and thought she’d try her luck. So she ex­plained how Suku­maran had taken up paint­ing at In­done­sia’s Ker­obokan Prison, and how it was the “chal­lenge of a life­time”. He was go­ing to en­ter a por­trait of his lawyer, Ju­lian McMa­hon, into the Archibald, even though he wouldn’t be el­i­gi­ble be­cause he hadn’t lived in Aus­tralia dur­ing the pre­vi­ous 12 months. He had, of course, been locked up in Ker­obokan since his ar­rest in 2005. Suku­maran had found “peace and sal­va­tion” in art, Fal­low said, but he needed some “con­struc­tive ad­vice”. “Could that be you or some­one you know?”

A few days later, Quilty sent a mes­sage back: “I will help.” Were it not for the Bali Nine, Quilty may never have trav­elled to Bali. Based in the NSW south­ern high­lands, his ad­ven­tures abroad tend to fol­low a cer­tain pat­tern. In 2003, he trav­elled to Paris af­ter win­ning the Brett White­ley Trav­el­ling Art Schol­ar­ship. In 2007, he spent four months in Spain on an Aus­tralia Coun­cil res­i­dency. Four years later he found him­self work­ing in Afghanistan, an of­fi­cial war artist for the Aus­tralian War Memo­rial. And ear­lier this year he joined Richard Flana­gan in Le­banon, Greece and Ser­bia, doc­u­ment­ing the ex­o­dus of Syr­ian refugees. But Bali? It wasn’t his thing. “It’s not for me to go to a Third World coun­try and get mas­sages,” Quilty says. “Never has been.”

That Facebook mes­sage, though, had made Quilty cu­ri­ous. Like so many oth­ers in Aus­tralia, he had fol­lowed the case of the Bali Nine as it played out in front of the cam­eras. The fate of the nine young Aus­tralians had seemed in­evitable from the mo­ment of their ar­rest in April 2005, try­ing to smug­gle heroin out of In­done­sia. Den­pasar judges handed down their sen­tences less than a year later. While seven of the nine were or­dered to spend the rest of their lives be­hind bars, a harsher sen­tence awaited the pair seen to have lead­er­ship roles: death by fir­ing squad for Suku­maran, the “en­forcer”, along with his friend, the “god­fa­ther” An­drew Chan.

For Quilty, there was some­thing else that caught his at­ten­tion. It’s com­mon for artists who have achieved suc­cess to be pestered for ad­vice, and he usu­ally rec­om­mends a com­bi­na­tion of hard work and art school. In this in­stance, though, there were en­cour­ag­ing signs. Suku­maran was also es­pe­cially hun­gry to learn. He was in­ter­ested in “thick paint”, and this res­onated with Quilty, him­self an im­pasto spe­cial­ist.

“That’s why I en­gaged,” he says. “The ques­tions he asked very clearly showed that he’d made some progress and that he’d tried, and I thought it was just so re­mark­able that some­one in that cir­cum­stance was try­ing. It was also against the no­tion that I had of him. I’d only heard the press of him be­ing this evil monster, the en­forcer. So I just de­cided to go there and meet him.”

More than 18 months have now passed since Suku­maran’s ex­e­cu­tion, and Quilty still stirs with pas­sion and anger about the loss of his friend. As he looks back on those trans­for­ma­tive years, re­call­ing all the highs and the ter­ri­ble lows, there’s also a dis­tinct sense of ad­mi­ra­tion for Suku­maran’s achieve­ments and char­ac­ter — es­pe­cially now, on the eve of a new ex­hi­bi­tion in Sydney ded­i­cated to the work of a man who en­tered prison as a crim­i­nal and left it as an artist. “It’s a refuge,” Quilty says. “For me, that’s what art is.” Back in late 2012, af­ter she re­ceived Quilty’s prom­ise to help, Far­row let Suku­maran know the good news. He was ex­cited to have such a dis­tin­guished men­tor: “I’ll check my sched­ule but I’m pretty sure I’m avail­able whenever he has the time!”

Quilty flew to Bali. He made his way past the air­port drug warn­ings and the crowds on Kuta Beach to Ker­obokan, where he found Suku­maran im­mersed in gossip mag­a­zines. The pris­oner had been paint­ing pictures of celebri­ties for “ghoul­ish West­ern­ers” at lo­cal mar­kets.

Ob­vi­ously this wouldn’t do. Quilty told Suku­maran he should “turn the mir­ror” on him­self if he was se­ri­ous about im­prov­ing. The first les­son was to paint self-por­traits: “It ad­dresses all the ques­tions that the pub­lic in Aus­tralia has about who you ac­tu­ally are and who you’ve be­come. It’s also bet­ter for prac­tice.”

Artist Ben Quilty, above; Myu­ran Suku­maran on death row in Ker­obokan prison, left

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