America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Myuran Sukumaran's death-row paintings come to Bendigo

Ben Quilty with Myuran Sukumaran's paintings.  Photo: Daniel Boud
The portrait of Indonesian President Joko Widodo faces the wall; its outline, lit from behind, frames the artist's signature and a simple inscription: "People can change."

Myuran Sukumaran was executed on April 29, 2015, for attempting to smuggle drugs out of Indonesia. But his message remains very much alive.

The anguish, guilt, regret and horror of living with a death sentence in a foreign prison is laid bare in an exhibition of more than 100 of Sukumaran's paintings which comes to Victoria for the 1st time this week.

"[The exhibition] brings up a lot of memories," says Archibald Prize-winning artist Ben Quilty, who taught Sukumaran to paint while on death row. "But it's a positive memory, really, of how much the work meant to Myuran and how much he hoped that people would see his work and continue to talk about the senselessness of the death penalty.

"We discussed that in depth and I promised to do my best get it out there ... I've posted the [exhibition] catalogue around the world to different leaders who I thought needed to see it. They don't respond. I sent one to [President] Jokowi."

The context in which Sukumaran's art was produced is a visceral thread throughout the exhibition, which premiered last year at Campbelltown Arts Centre as part of Sydney Festival. Many of the works contain overt references to their creator's imprisonment and impending execution.

"I can't think of a more powerful anti-death penalty image made in the history of humankind," says Quilty. But, he argues, the works hold their own.

"I think I probably underestimated how good the work was. It wasn't until I opened the crates [of paintings] in my studio that I realised the possibility of how big a show this could be.

"People were saying [Sukumaran's interest in painting] was made up to try and gain sympathy, to try save his own life. It's such a load of crap. You can see in the exhibition how much work he did and how he was obsessed with his own art practice, like I am obsessed with my own art practice."

Quilty's influence is apparent Sukumaran's paintings. But Campbelltown Arts Centre director Michael Dagostino, who co-curated the exhibition with Quilty, says Sukumaran was clearly beginning to establish his own style in the last 6 months of his life. The pieces produced in his final hours - as he painted all through the night - are the most powerful.

"About 20 works were painted in his last 72 hours, the majority of them self-portraits," says Dagostino. "It's kind of weird, [this selection] doesn't feel rushed, it doesn't feel unfinished. They are quite settled as paintings and there is a real sadness to them, because he's always looking back at you."

The exhibition also features works from other artists responding to Sukumaran's story, including Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Megan Cope, Jagath Dheerasekara, Khaled Sabsabi and Matthew Sleeth.

Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise is at Bendigo Art Gallery from Saturday until September 16.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Hannah Francis, July 4, 2018

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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