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Richard Bell is always called “controversial”. The word is both too clichéd and too weak. The Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Goreng Goreng artist is powerful, demanding, unsettling, garish, in-your-face, rabble-rousing and comprehensively loathed by the conservative art critics who dominate the Australian mainstream media. So is his work, unsurprisingly.
Bell speaks truth to colonial power. He calls out racism in unanswerable ways that leave his opponents spluttering with frustration. He uses text, which those critics deride, claiming such works are not art. They conveniently forget – or perhaps also despise – artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Bruce Nauman, who came to use text as modernist and postmodernist deconstruction.
He is also an urban Aboriginal artist, and he doesn’t make the kind of abstract, dreamy, “spiritual” paintings of Indigenous country and traditions that the white world swoons over. His works are closer to a kind of visual rap: they don’t leave white viewers in comfortable ignorance of the cultural practices they depict.
Bell does, actually, call himself an activist as much as an artist; in fact, he calls himself an activist before an artist. That clarity doesn’t mollify his critics; it only seems to excite them further. Forget Goya, Géricault, Kollwitz, Repin, Goncharova, Beuys, the Dadaists, and that whole lineage whom the naysayers revere: the politicisation of art only seems admissible, to such critics, if it carries the patina of age.
The retrospective of Bell’s work on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney is his largest exhibition so far. The images, the words, the colours and the concepts leap off the walls. It is clear why he, now 68, has been so influential, especially to younger urban artists and activists.
His most provocative images are there: 38 works in all. Various incarnations of his “Bell’s Theorem” paintings include the 2003 work Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell's Theorem), which won the 20th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin that year and brought him to public notice. Its white text on a vivid, complex and tangled ground is challenging: “Aboriginal Art: It’s a White Thing.” He told The Courier-Mail that year that activism for racial justice was “a relentless campaign”, adding that it was “the reason I got into fine art. I have a direct message, not a subtle one, and through art I can reach more people.”
Another work, called Art Movements (2004), is a textual history of “Aryan” art. Pay the Rent (2009) is self-explanatory, as is Little Johnny (2001), for those who remember the Howard years: it carries the text, “I am not sorry”. A documentary painting called A White Hero for Black Australia (2011) depicts Peter Norman on the 1968 Olympics podium wearing a human rights badge while fellow athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos make the Black Power salute. Bell made that work with Emory Douglas, the famous minister of culture for the Black Panther Party from the late 1960s until they disbanded in the 1980s. The two also painted a striking wall-long work titled Peace Heals, War Kills (Big Ass Mutha Fuckin Mural) (2011). “The strong historic political connections between the Black Panthers of Emory Douglas and the 1970s Australian Black Power Movement resonates in the Douglas/Bell collaboration,” wrote the Gumbainggir activist, academic, writer and actor Gary Foley, who helped establish the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Bell’s three takes on Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl carry the thought bubbles: “Thank Christ I’m not Aboriginal!!!” (2007), “Thank Christ I’m not a refugee!” (2014) and “Thank Christ I’m not a Muslim…” (2015). It’s all very combative and thought-provoking, but hardest to walk away from is his sequence of photographs of heart-breakingly beautiful Aboriginal children, titled Ministry Kids (Children’s Parliament) (1992) and captioned with text such as “Minister for Trees and Culture, Prime Minister” and “Minister for White Affairs, Employment and Industry”.
Bell was born in Charleville in outback Queensland in 1953, and the family moved around in search of work, living in Augathella, Morven, Mitchell, Rockhampton, Dalby and Darwin. His father was often away, working as a drover and cane cutter. His mother died when Bell was 17 and the authorities decided he and his younger brother, Marshall, were at risk and threatened to send the boys to government homes. But they were eventually fostered by Nellie Leedie, a friend of their parents, who was a cousin of “Sugar” Ray Robinson, a well-known Aboriginal activist from Charleville. Bell left school during year 12, taking up a toolmaking apprenticeship.
His first artworks were Aboriginal boomerangs and other artefacts made with his brother for the tourist market, something he continued to do until 1994. And yet, as curator Clothilde Bullen points out in the MCA catalogue, Bell’s work Crisis: What to Do about this Half-Caste Thing (1991), which seems at first glance to use techniques close to those of early Western Desert paintings, is already overlaid with defiant Western symbols and text.
“For me, this work embodies what Richard means when he talks about white Australia’s perception of the difference between ‘remote’ and ‘urban’ Aboriginal people,” writes Bullen, a Wardandi (Nyoongar) woman with English and French heritage. “The storytelling that Richard engages in carries with it the implication that we are all one and the same, albeit from dissimilar geographical locations. He is stating clearly in his early work that the distinctions, or lines drawn, by Western society between ‘real or authentic’ Aboriginal people and ‘city-dwelling blacks with no culture’ are fanciful … and a tool of the oppressor.”
In 2003 (the year his brother Marshall, also an activist and an artist, died), Bell and fellow artists Jennifer Herd and Vernon Ah Kee co-founded the cultural collective proppaNOW to counter stereotypes about “traditional” Aboriginal art and give a voice to urban artists. Its most recent exhibition, Occurrent Affair, ran for four months this year at the University of Queensland Museum of Art. Showing works by seven Queensland artists, it explored the slippage between tabloid-style language and how it is interpreted.
A whole separate room across the MCA’s foyer is devoted to a re-installation of Bell’s Embassy (2013–), his tribute to the permanent protest site set up in Canberra by Aboriginal activists in 1972 in response to the McMahon government’s Indigenous policies. It has been shown in Moscow, New York, Jakarta, Jerusalem, Perth, Adelaide and elsewhere. As well as a monument to black activism in this country, it is also a direct rebuke to historian Geoffrey Blainey’s 1993 coinage of the “black-armband view of history”, which the political right in Australia uses as a slogan against demands for recognition of Aboriginal reality.
That the exhibition is controversial is another rebuke: to the fact that race still plays a part in the acceptance of art in Australia. One of those conservative white art critics I mentioned at the outset declined the invitation to the media preview of this exhibition, according to a source at the gallery, sending an accompanying spray about not even considering Bell’s art to be art.
The exhibition is controversial, all right. It’s also a fluent deconstruction of white supremacy. And it is art.
Richard Bell: You Can Go Now is at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, until August 29.
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