Profile

Richard Bell’s prescient work and unapologetic polemics have paved the way for an entire generation of contemporary Indigenous artists.

By Tristen Harwood.

Artist and activist Richard Bell

Richard Bell.
Credit: Rhett Hammerton

As I’m finishing up a midday chat with artist and activist Richard Bell he tells me: “Oh fuck. Yeah, I didn’t tell you about my dog. I’ve got a dog, Tilly, she’s pretty important – make sure you mention my dog.”

I meet Bell as he’s preparing for the largest solo exhibition of his work to date, You Can Go Now, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). He speaks in short, punchy sentences, thickly punctuated with rolling laughter and expletives. As with almost everything he says throughout our conversation – we discuss the art industry, Indigenous rights, colonialism, Black Lives Matter protests, Bell’s own art – the statement about his dog is tinged with trenchant humour, hinting at some kind of deeper meaning.

I’ve seen Tilly before, I tell him. It was back in 2019. I was helping an artist install her show in Carpark, an exhibition space underneath Milani Gallery in West End, Brisbane. Bell’s application for the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale had just been rejected. And he was there with Tilly, having T-shirts printed for a successful crowdfunding campaign to make the artwork anyway, while creating a replica pavilion.

“Yeah, this one,” Bell says, gesturing to his T-shirt, which bears a screenprinted image of one of his paintings, a brown outline of the continent overlaid with bold white text that reads: “THIS IS ABORIGINAL”.

In May 2019, Bell floated his counter-pavilion, no tin shack… – a replica of the actual Australian pavilion, bound in massive chains – down the Venetian lagoon on a barge. Typical of Bell, it was a rambunctious and acute critique. He flipped the script on the spectacle that is the Venice Biennale, literally stealing the show to nod to Australia’s occupation of stolen land.

Bell is often characterised as an incendiary provocateur, the “angry Aboriginal artist” having a laugh at the cost of the white arbiters of the art world. In some ways this is true. Another of his wonderful blows to the Australian art establishment’s sense of decorum was in 2011, when he was the sole judge of the prestigious Sulman Prize. He chose the winner by tossing a coin and caused a scandal. It could be the single most cutting critique of the status attributed to Australian art prizes. At the time, Bell said of his mordant manoeuvre: “Like every prize, it’s a lottery.”

More than anything, Bell comes across as someone who is deeply caring and committed. His seditious tactics emerge from a place of concern and love for Indigenous lifeworlds, which means sometimes not just calling settler-colonial institutions on their shit but rubbing their noses in it a little.

While many of his messages are important for white folks to grasp, his work isn’t really for them. “I make art for other Aboriginal people. I want [my art] to be empowering to them,” he says. Take his massive painting, From Little Things, Big Things Grow (2020), which comprises four 300-centimetre by 150-centimetre panels. The title is a reference to the eponymous Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly song, telling the story of Vincent Lingiari who – with other Gurindji leaders – led the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966.

The painting depicts recent protests from around the world. One placard painted with an Aboriginal flag reads “LAND RIGHTS”, another repeats the call “I CAN’T BREATHE”. The painting is a frenetic melange of protesters, placards, text and colour, all trailing off into a pale blue background. As with other Bell canvases, it’s dashed with streams of paint in the style of Jackson Pollock – or, more accurately, Gordon Bennett, who also appropriated Pollock’s paint whips in his practice. It’s an assertion of the resurgent power of Blak and Black collective action.

Like Bell himself, the painting is topical, prescient and attentive to history. One sign in the painting instructs: “REMEMBER YIRAWALA”. Yirawala was a Kuninjku bark painter (c. 1903–1973), a seminal artist and land rights activist. In this single, subtle gesture Bell cuts through false binaries such as “traditional” and “contemporary” or “remote” and “urban” that have long been used to incorrectly categorise the variousness of Indigenous art practices.

Other artists who’ve influenced Bell as well as Bennett are Lin Onus and Trevor Nickolls. There’s reverence in Bell’s tone when he speaks of Bennett, his biggest stylistic influence. “He was in Brisbane making art at the same time [as Bell], we got to see his stuff.” One of Bennett’s primary concerns was the European perceptual grid and the impossibility of representing the Indigenous “subject” in contemporary art. Through the use of text, Bell focuses on using contemporary art as a stage for his activism. “I say that I’m an activist who masquerades as an artist,” he says. “Just say that, fuck it.”

A Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Goreng Goreng fella, Bell was born in Charleville, Queensland, in 1953. He experienced the violence of settler colonialism, injustice, dispossession and the carceral nature of the mission system very directly. He’s dealt with the “leftovers from the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era”. For the first two years of his life, he lived in a tent on an Aboriginal reserve. When he was six he moved with his mother to Darwin, where she’d taken a job as a “house parent” at the notoriously abusive Retta Dixon Home for “half-caste” Aboriginal children. After less than a year the family left Darwin and eventually ended up back in Queensland, living on another Aboriginal reserve, this time in Mitchell.

Bell moved to Sydney in 1974, and in Redfern learnt about Aboriginal history, land rights, activism, systemic racism and law from other blackfellas who were activists. He played for the iconic Redfern All Blacks rugby league team and got involved with the Aboriginal rights and international Black Power movements. Bell has since collaborated on artworks with activists Gary Foley, who helped establish the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, and former Black Panther Party member Emory Douglas.

Bell, who has had six children – one of whom died in 2012 – didn’t became an artist until he was 34. After Redfern, he moved to Brisbane, where his younger brother convinced him to start making tourist art, boomerangs and other artefacts. They sold these to the international tourist market from their own shop, Wiumulli. The shop closed in 1990 but Bell continued making this work until 1994, including postcard-size prints that borrowed iconography and cross-hatching techniques from rock and bark paintings.

His story might have been very different if he hadn’t stuck with art. “I was looking at doing television and video repair back in the 1980s and 1990s,” Bell tells me. “I had the idea that maybe I’d do the TV and video repair and then when computers became more common they’d break down a lot too.”

Some of his “rarrk postcards” were recently reproduced by fellow Brisbane-based artist Dale Harding. Harding told me Bell was hugely important in paving the way for him and a whole generation who are artists, activists and writers.

Bell was instrumental in the formation of the proppaNOW art collective, a group of Indigenous artists based predominately in Brisbane. proppaNOW has been instrumental in disrupting culturally essentialist notions about what constitutes “authentic” Aboriginal art: in particular the label “urban Aboriginal art”, which was widely used to delegitimise the artwork of Indigenous people living in and around east coast cities and towns. Bell uses the term “Liberation art” to describe such work, because the work of these artists often speaks of the contemporary injustices against Indigenous people.

He says that it was easy for him to form a career as an artist once he started making “fine” art – “it just sort of happened, you know” – but he’s also quick to point out the relationships and communal support systems that helped his practice flourish. Bell shoots off names of people and events that set the scene for his success: “Brenda Croft, Hetti Perkins, Boomalli, the Koori Art ’84 exhibition at Artspace in Sydney”. It’s an abridged Who’s Who of Aboriginal art history.

In a way these artists worked behind enemy lines, carving out space for other Indigenous artists. There’s no doubt that You Can Go Now wouldn’t be happening at a major Australian institution without the visionary work of Wardandi (Nyoongar) woman Clothilde Bullen, senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions at the MCA. She also sponsored Bell’s pitch for the Venice Biennale. “Most of my practice involves collaboration; I have a communal approach to things,” Bell says.

In 2002 – when the art industry was much less comfortable with being attacked – Bell produced his iconoclastic painting Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) and accompanying manifesto. Bell’s polemic put forth the argument that the category “Aboriginal art” was conceived to create a white commodity. The painting, which won him the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, superimposes the text “Aboriginal Art, it’s a white thing” on vibrant panels painted with vaguely Western Desert motifs, and is licked with dashes of white and black, again mimicking the appearance of abstract expressionism.

I ask Bell if he thinks things have improved since he published the manifesto. “Just look around, ask yourself, what’s different? There’s not much that’s different,” he says. “But looking at it from a global perspective, I think I got it wrong. I said that Aboriginal art is a white thing. Contemporary art is a white thing. That’s the reality. Everything is looked at through this white lens, this lens of Western art, as if Europeans are the arbiters of ‘what the fuck is art’. I don’t wanna talk too much about it, you know, because I wanna write this stuff – ‘Bell’s Theorem – Contemporary Art, It’s a White Thing’.” He says that contemporary art is perpetually trying to identify and locate different forms of deviation, which it can codify “and co-opt”.

Bell is constantly saying things like: “I hardly even thought of it as an artwork, I just thought I can get away with this, I can do it, so fuck it, I’m gonna do it.” In this case, he’s referring to Embassy (2013–ongoing), which consists of a large military-style canvas tent and painted protest signs. The iteration at MCA succinctly reads: “White Invaders You Are Living on Stolen Land.”

In the vein of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was established by Indigenous activists on the lawns opposite Parliament House in Canberra, Bell’s Embassy is a symbol of anticolonial protest and a provisional space for activist organising and education.

“I just thought that the embassy in its original form was a fucking work of art, it was so brilliant conceptually, you know,” he says. “Sovereignty was not on the table but here was this assertion of sovereignty that figured that we were deserving of an embassy, because the colonisers were a foreign power, so we needed an embassy to be able to represent our peoples and relay information – you know, a feedback to the coloniser.”

Since its first inception in Melbourne, Embassy has toured the world. Bell points out that it hasn’t been to any countries in Africa, South America or Central America yet, “so I’m hoping I get an invitation from them mob”. As well as being on display in MCA as a part of You Can Go Now, it exists on the gallery’s website as a digital “protest camp” for imagining and articulating alternative futures and reflecting and retelling stories of oppression and displacement.

When I ask what Bell does in his time off from art-making, he tells me he doesn’t really take time off. “I’m sort of always thinking about… I’m trying to imagine a better world. A better world that manages to cater to the needs, aspirations, desires and wishes of Aboriginal people.”

Angry, provocative, complex, caring, this is the work Bell does: he’s an artist who pounds at the institutional gates so the rest of us mob can slip in through a back window.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "You can go now".

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Tristen Harwood is a writer, cultural critic and researcher, and a descendant of Numbulwar.