Reclaiming Aborigeneity: Richard Bell

Aboriginal Australian artist Richard Bell’s artwork has been labeled “provocative,” “uncompromising,” and “controversial” for bringing race politics into the mainstream, however, Bell sees himself as “more activist than artist.” “I’m just being matter of fact,” he says. “I recognize some people find [my work] contentious, and that my paintings attract controversy. This response has nothing to do with me; the response has to do with the viewer.”

For over two decades, self-taught Bell has created art that challenges the status quo, shocks the establishment, and inspires discussion for change. Born in 1953, in Charleville, Queensland, northeastern Australia, as a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities, Bell spent his early childhood living in a tent, then a corrugated tin shack. Later, he lived in a Christian reeducation facility for “half-casts” (biracial children) where his mother worked. These centers were established in the 1930s to house mixedrace children who were forcibly removed from their families to be prepared for assimilation into white society. His family later settled on an Aboriginal reserve and lived there until Bell was 14. Living on the reserve, Bell witnessed firsthand the mistreatment of Aboriginal people when his home was bulldozed by the government. In the 1970s, Bell became involved in the Aboriginal Rights Movement, and in the 1980s he worked for the New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service. When he was 34, Bell began painting as a way to earn money by making souvenirs for tourists.

Why did Bell become a serious artist? “I’m a jock and like most jocks in Australia, I thought art was for girls. Someone convinced me that in the art world there was quite a large, powerful, and influential audience. I was told that through my art I could get into activism, express almost any issue, and not get arrested. I liked that part,” he laughs. Since then, Bell has flipped the table on Western art; Bell plays with the appropriation of abstract expressionism and pop art styles of painters like Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Jackson Pollock. The text that accompanies each piece is what causes shock in some circles. Bell is brutally honest in exposing Australia’s racism towards Aboriginal people, the endemic white privilege, negative stereotyping, and exoticizing of the “other” that perpetuates itself in almost every facet of the mainstream media. Invasion, displacement, violence, genocide, broken treaties, language loss, systematized racism, marginalization, and dispossession of Aboriginal communities are common themes in Bell’s art.

He says, “[There is] a lotof discussion going on about [these issues] all over the country, but it’s in Aboriginal residences, not in the mainstream; these issues are not [discussed] in the mainstream. What I do is very un-Aboriginal; it’s very unusual for Aboriginal people to have an opinion and to espouse it loudly.”

After years of activism with the Aboriginal Rights Movement, Bell’s artwork finally emerged in the spotlight when his painting Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) won the 2003 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. With the words “Aboriginal Art—It’s A White Thing” splashed across the canvas, his painting demanded attention to the exploitation and commodification of Indigenous art and aesthetics by the white art market. The painting also challenged non-Aboriginal artists who appropriate Indigenous symbols in their work, and the common misunderstanding of traditional and modern Indigenous art.

When asked how one might resist this type of commodification, Bell is clear: “Re-appropriate in return.” Then, he adds, “We need the academics to write about issues. We need to discuss these things. Remember, we are back at looking at the circumstances facing our people. Immediate survival is paramount, that is the rule. In that context, how do we get back in-sync? How do we inform white people that this is going on? It’s a huge task to undertake. Taking the effort to go and inform the people is probably one of the best things to do. This is what happens in my work. When Aboriginal people walk through [my exhibits], it’s gratifying to me because they become aware of issues happening in other parts of the country. One of the big issues I’ve been talking about for six or seven years now is the death of a man in Palm Island in North Queensland, in 2004. We are quite familiar with the circumstance. We keep talking about it. This man died while in custody [of the police] and the arresting officer was acquitted; we are all scared now when one of our children or relatives is arrested—whether they will survive. We know that the perpetrator of any crime against us will be acquitted with impunity. So that’s why we have not let this issue die and keep it topical so that we do not forget and we let them know that we have not forgotten. This incident sparked the creation of my painting Psalm Singing Suite (2007). The whole issue is abominable.”

What does Bell see as the biggest barrier to aboriginal artists? Bell answers this question emphatically: “White male privilege. Maura Riley [my curator] gave this talk in Cannes, France. She compared how many white males and how many white females were included in various exhibits to how many people of color [were included in exhibits]. At the Whitney Museum, in New York City, 63 percent of exhibits were by white males, 35 percent by white females, and only 1 percent by people of color. The rest of the world (two-thirds of the world’s population), is represented through art by only 1 percent. When you look at those numbers, that is the biggest barrier.”

How does Bell measure success? “I’m really happy if peoplecan recognize themselves and their family in the artwork. Then,I feel that I am actually communicating to people. When white people come in and then leave saying, ‘I felt really, really uncomfortable with this show,’ I think, ‘Damn, that is good.’ I try to observe how my exhibit affects them. Here [in the United States] people are much more willing to share their opinions, but back home [in Australia] they are more reserved. They have that British reserve.”

Bell’s introductory North American exhibition, Richard Bell: I Am Not Sorry, showcased in New York in the fall of 2009. Bell’s work can now be seen in a traveling exhibition entitled Us vs. Them. “Aboriginal people need to be more open [about what we
want]. Directness is needed. We can’t just talk in metaphor; we can’t just whisper. These issues have to be screeched from the rooftops.”

Richard Bell currently lives in Brisbane.

— Aisha Farley, a former Cultural Survival intern, interviewed Richard Bell in September.

Richard Bell: Uz vs. Them
Tufts University Gallery

University of Kentucky Art Museum
February 12–May 6, 2012

Victoria H. Myhren Gallery, University of Denver
September 13–December 9, 2012

Indiana University Art Museum
March 7–May 12, 2013

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and supported by the Queensland Government, Australia, through Trade and Investment Queensland’s Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency (QIAMEA).Additional support has come from the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts and the Embassy of Australia, Washington, D.C.

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