Australians are divided over the prospect of Andrew Chan’s and Myuran Sukummaran’s execution. Some Australians believe that young men should be punished for importing heroin, while others disagree. Ben Quilty, an Australian artist, has been making passionate appeals to save their lives in the Australian media over the past two weeks since both men’s clemency pleas were rejected.
Why is one of Australia’s most well-known contemporary artists – winner of the 2011 Archibald Prize and Official war artist – associating with two drug smugglers convicted of a crime? Quilty’s association with Sukumaran is not about his friendship that he formed while mentoring him at Kerobokan Prison as a painter. It’s much more.
Quilty began his career as an artist at the beginning of the 2000s. His expressionistic and sometimes aggressive paintings deal with what he perceives as a crisis within Australian masculinity. He has been tackling the symbolism of masculinity in youth since his early works of Holden Toranas or car wrecks.
Ben Quilty’s 2009 Archibald Prize submission, a portrait by Jimmy Barnes. AAP Image/AGNSW
Some of his portraits include wild men from Australian culture such as Jimmy Barnes, Adam Cullen and the artist who, at 47, was destroyed by chronic drug and alcohol use.
In 2013, Quilty said in an interview that he was more concerned about finding a less destructive voice for masculinity, since he had become a father. “I want be a great father and a role model. But there are no male role models.”
In 2012, when Quilty became an official war artist, he elevated his investigation of masculinity in youth to a new level. He spent some time with Australian soldiers at the Tarin-Kowt base in Afghanistan. Upon his return, he formed friendships with many soldiers who had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His portraits tried to portray the fragility of humanity at the heart of war. But his profile helped expose the problem of PTSD.
Ben Quilty’s Afghanistan Series. AAP Image/Australian War Memorial
Myuran Sukummaran contacted Quilty while he was still dealing with his time spent in Afghanistan.
After Afghanistan, this was not something I needed, but I should be involved. He asked for advice on how to paint.
Quilty gave Sukumaran a few simple drawing exercises and found out that his protege was developing incredibly fast.
Quilty’s first meeting with Sukumaran was a great experience.
I thought about my life and the decisions I made. Myu made one of those terrible, hefty decisions. I could have easily ended up in that situation.
Quilty believes that the actions of Chan & Sukumaran ten years ago confirmed his argument about the crisis in youth masculinity.
Simple decisions could have put me in this position. Perhaps not exactly in that situation, but I have done some self-indulgent acts in my younger years. It seemed like a small step for me to get there because, as a 21-year-old young man, it is hard to think about other people. Empathy is often a later development.
Quilty describes the man he met at Kerobokan Prison as “a very sensitive, quiet man who is very aware of his damage.”