WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the content on this page may contain images and references to deceased persons.
I am very excited to share with you a blog post from the wonderful Katharine Cousins! Enjoy reading about this incredibly powerful exhibition.
Hello I’m Katharine, a Museum Studies graduate and genealogy lover!
I had the pleasure of visiting Another Day in Paradise at Campbelltown Arts Centre early last month. It was one of those exhibitions that had quite a buzz surrounding it. After chatting to family and friends, I was encouraged to see it for myself. I decided to visit with a friend, one whom had limited experience with the arts but was still keen to visit due to her law background. I myself do not have an art history background but love to classify myself as an appreciator of art.
Exhibited in conjunction with the Sydney Festival, Another Day in Paradise was curated by Myuran Sukumaran’s mentor Ben Quilty and Director of the Arts Centre, Michael Dagostino. The exhibition focuses on the artistic works of Myuran Sukumaran, one of the nine convicted drug smugglers in Bali, Indonesia. Along with Andrew Chan, Myuran spent ten years or 3665 days in Kerobokan Prison, before his execution in April 2015. During this time, Sukumaran developed a passion for art, using his paintings as ‘a means of communicating with the world and [as] a redemptive practice’ (Ben Quilty, Curatorial Statement, Exhibition Catalogue 2017).
The exhibition was displayed in all but one room of the Arts Centre. Walking into the white walled foyer, you are immediately faced with a large scale self-portrait of Myuran. The image is not only used to guide you into the complex, but also to create impact on your arrival. It reminds visitors that not only is this exhibition about the art and the tragic story of the Bali 9, but it also represents the personal journey of the artist as he developed his art and dealt with the consequences of his past actions. Following from this lone portrait, each section of the exhibition devoted to Myuran’s work flows by periods of time. It begins with an explanation of the Bali 9, accompanied by portraits of each member and ends with his last work; an Indonesian flag.
Each artwork is confronting in its own way – some portraits are smudged, some unfinished. On one wall hangs a sole painting, an AK-47 (Gun (Large) 2014), the rifle Myuran discovered was used for the executions.
However, the artwork which affected me the most was one of the last displayed in the exhibition, the portrait of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi, 23 January 2015). The man who ultimately decided Myuran’s fate. The work is hung with the back of the painting facing the audience. This is to highlight Myuran’s simple but powerful message; ‘People can change’. It’s a message which has stayed with me.
In addition to Myuran’s work, five contemporary artists were chosen to look at the themes of justice, transformation and punishment. These works were dispersed evenly throughout the rooms. The artists had used a variety of forms and media to convey their messages. All artworks were interesting and provoking, but I want to focus on two different works.
Aside from Sukumaran’s work, I was particularly moved by the work of Taloi Havini, entitled Tsomi, wan bel (Sorry, win-win situation), 2017, which was presented alongside Sukumaran’s ‘Prison Life’ works. Havini introduces audiences to the idea of reconciliation and restorative justice, presenting the traditional ceremony of Wan bel (win-win situation) practiced in Northern Bougainville.
These ceremonies are pre-arranged social gatherings which bring offenders and victims together. They are watched over by an adjudicator, permitting perpetrators to publicly admit the wrong committed before proclaiming sorrow to the effected individual, group or community. Watching the ceremony, I was moved and confronted by the situation. Each individual looks directly down the camera and therefore at you. It was intimate. Although unable to understand what is being said, you are witness to every action, every emotion and every vulnerability of all involved. For many, like my friend, watching this exchange for almost ten minutes was too confronting and uncomfortable. We stayed for roughly half the presentation before she wished to move on with the exhibition. So we left the idea of restorative justice back with Sukumaran’s contrasting depiction of prison life and Western law and justice.
Whilst the additional contemporary works added layers of meaning to Myuran’s work, I believe there can be a divide between artistic vision and audience understanding. I do understand that meaning is mostly in the eye of the beholder and open to interpretation. However, the average audience is not always able to read the artworks through aesthetics. On entering the exhibition, I observed most visitors throughout the space did not carry or read the exhibition catalogue or handout. Like many galleries, the design and presented information is minimal and relies on the catalogue to convey necessary information about artists, titles and interpretation. The catalogue was particularly important for audiences, allowing them to gain insights into Quilty’s personal relationship with Sukumaran as well as the exhibition themes. For example, as a general observer, the implications of restorative justice within the ceremony in Tsomi cannot be understood.
This brings me to my friend with a law background. Walking through the exhibition, she was able to connect well with Sukumaran’s works. She spent long periods looking at Sukumaran’s portraiture and commented on various elements of his work. However, when the commissioned contemporary artworks were displayed, even with the trusty catalogue in hand, she was more likely to view the art with confusion.
One example of this confusion came when we viewed Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s piece, The Days (2016). After gazing at the work for some time, I heard my friend say, ‘I don’t get it.’ Whilst I was able to interpret elements to the piece for her, I didn’t have an adequate answer for its overall meaning. The questions continued… ‘I don’t get the bird.’ ‘But why is the light there?’ We looked at the artist statement in the catalogue, the majority of which spoke of Rahman’s personal connection to Myuran and the Sukumaran’s. We continued to ponder. After some time, they eventually said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to understand, let’s forget it.’ It was only after we left that I was able to gain insight into the significance of the piece through other media. This highlighted to me a growing need to make art more accessible to those audiences outside of the visual arts world. As it is an exhibition connected with the Sydney Festival and one that wants to challenge public views on punishment, human rights and rehabilitation, it can’t just connect with artists or art lovers. If a ‘regular’ everyday viewer cannot fully understand an artwork’s intended meaning, then how are Art Centres, Galleries and Museums able to achieve their desire to challenge communities and individuals? Whilst I believe art can communicate messages, there needs to be more consideration regarding communication devices to attract new audiences… and get them to come back for more.
Aside from my criticism with communication and the contemporary art within the exhibition, overall I feel privileged to have gone. Not only did I get to see the art of a figure which dominated the news during a good portion of my life, but it also did personally affect me. Most particularly it challenged how I viewed the rehabilitation of prisoners and how our justice system operates, juggling the ideas of justice and punishment. This was the main aim of the exhibition, and so I can only encourage others to come out to the Campbelltown Arts Centre to visit. If nothing else, Myuran’s story and artistic work should be discussed in as many households as possible. The exhibition runs until March 26, don’t be the one who wished to go and didn’t.
This post was written by Katharine Cousins. Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A huge thank you to Katharine for her review. What an amazing exhibition tackling such difficult and emotional content. I hope to visit and see it for myself!