Richard Bell at the Tate Modern

In late November 2018 I was talking with Indigenous Australian contemporary artist and political activist Richard Bell in the back room of Josh Milani’s Gallery in Brisbane. Milani had been called away on business and Bell had come over from his studio to meet me. He was wearing paint-splattered shorts and a blue button through shirt. Several days of white stubble seemed to have been spray-painted onto his chin while his head was framed by a halo of wiry white hair.

A conversation with Bell is anything other than predictable. His opinions are strong, as one would expect of a long-standing activist for Indigenous rights. He doesn’t suffer fools easily. Bell eschews labels and prefers to describe himself as ‘an activist who masquerades as an artist’, a line I had heard before.

In a moment bordering on humility he reveals to Artist Profile that he has been invited to exhibit in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern in 2021, where previous exhibiting artists included Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliason.

Bell pulls no punches with his art and life which are framed in resistance and rebellion. His paintings are sometimes blocky and geometrical, sometimes abstract but always confrontational with textual statements emerging through a miasma of brilliant colour such as, We Know How To Wait (2018), and I See You As My Equal (2018), on show late last year at Milani Gallery.

When he talks about the art system and Indigenous causes it is in the lingua franca of displacement, invasion, systemised racism, and government oppression suffered by Indigenous peoples globally. White invaders You Are living on Stolen Land is a placard that sits outside his now almost iconic installation Embassy and delivers a blow like a boxer’s one-two combo.

Nowhere is Bell’s political stance more clearly articulated than in Embassy. It’s inspired by the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy, initially a beach umbrella pitched on the grounds of Canberra’s Parliament House in 1972 by four young men demanding Aboriginal land rights. Bell’s Embassy – a large army-style canvas tent – pays homage to the original and has become a place for the exchange of ideas on contemporary racism and Indigenous oppression. On its journey around the world it has become a symbol of black power and racial activism.

Embassy, with its politically loaded call to action on Indigenous rights, will feature centre stage in the Turbine Hall and will be a catalyst for Indigenous activism: ‘Concerts, music, community forums, site-specific events, dance, Hip Hop music and performance, and most of all I want to involve the local community, and refugee groups,’ Bell says.

Many artists would be daunted by the prospect of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, but not Bell. ‘I’ve already told them (Tate Modern) they don’t have anything to worry about. They love the idea of me working with the community,’ Bell says. He mounted a similar program in 2016 at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam in collaboration with curator Vivian Ziherl, and American Black Panther activist Emory Douglas, where they brought together local dancers and artists.

Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern since 2016, shares Bell’s democratic belief in inclusion. Morris has previously outlined her intention to me of making Tate Modern less elitist.

By email she described Embassy – acquired by Tate in 2017 in partnership with the MCA, and supported by the Qantas Foundation – as a ‘powerful and thought-provoking work’ that will help ‘shape our (Tate) activities around community and help frame our forward thinking’.

‘Morris liked what I did with the poor communities in Amsterdam and is happy for me to access similar communities in London. She is one of the reasons why I’m doing this,’ Bell says.

Despite the importance of his show at Tate Modern, Bell is casual about it all, and in fact is more focused on this year’s Venice Biennale and wants to talk about the logistics involved in taking his upcoming project, ‘We Don’t Really Need This/Embassy: Bell Invites’, to Venice (which we profiled recently in Artist Profile 44).

This is despite the fact that he has not been selected by the Australia Council as Australia’s 2019 official representative artist to show in the Australian Pavilion in the Gardini. Last year the council had introduced a new artist-selection model that allowed any Australian artist to enter an open competition. Bell was shortlisted, along with four other artists, but what rankled him was not that he wasn’t selected – he is too thick-skinned to spend time dwelling on missed opportunities – but the secrecy involved in the process.

‘The judges were not named prior to the judging (other than artist and academic Callum Morton who headed up the judging committee). It was a closed event, the five shortlisted artists were confined to another room without the opportunity to pitch the merits of their work to the judges, and artists had been obliged to sign a non-disclosure agreement aimed at preventing them from publishing details of their work. I published mine as an art work four days after they announced the winner,’ Bell says.

Bell’s Venice submission was controversial and, he says, ‘I would have been pleasantly surprised if it had been successful.’ He intended to wrap the Australian Pavilion (a relatively new architecturally boxy structure that cantilevers out to meet the adjacent canal in the Giardini) in chains that would bar access to the building. This overtly political gesture would critique how Aboriginal artists are marginalised in a white-dominated Australian art business.

Bell enjoys a stunt, and he will take a model of his proposal to Venice, complete with chains, measuring between four and five metres square by three metres high, which he will mount on a barge. His intention is to park the barge in a high-profile spot, possibly near the vaporetto stop at the entrance to the Giardini.

His Embassy 2019: Venice will be parked elsewhere at an as yet undecided location but from which he will be actively selling his brand of tote-bags and provocative t-shirts, one of which will be emblazoned with a map of Australia and the words, This Is Aboriginal.

The cost of this rebellious guerrilla-like project will be substantial but Bell is well advanced in fundraising through social media as well as being assisted by an Australia Council Peer Assessment Panel grant of $50,000.

‘The whole thing,’ he says candidly, was simply a ‘stunt to promote Embassy’.

Bell, born in 1953 in Queensland, is a self-taught artist and outspoken political advocate on behalf of Aboriginal rights who became politicised during his time spent living in Redfern during the 1970s and 1980s. ‘It was like living in another Australia. I got caught up in the Black Power thing and became politicised,’ he says.

Since he picked up a paintbrush in 1997, making souvenirs for tourists, he has relentlessly supported Indigenous causes, speaking out about black deaths in custody, the stolen generation and a prison system that today holds more First Australians per capita than white people. And ‘things have not improved,’ he says.

When he talks about Aboriginal art it is to say how white paternalism has taken over and controls the Indigenous art industry. It’s a theory he articulated in an essay in 2002, Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art – it’s a white thing!, and it’s a position that hasn’t shifted over the intervening years either. ‘Why should Aboriginal art fit into any Western art box? Western art is only 500 years old. Aboriginal art is thousands of years old. Why should we want to be swallowed by Western art?’ he says.

While Bell may silently rue the failure of not being selected for Venice, Tate’s Turbine Hall remains a glittering prize. Fellow Australian artist Abdul Abdullah – who along with his brother Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, was also short-listed for Venice – put Bell’s concerns into perspective. Recently he told Bell, ‘An Australian artist gets to Venice every two years. How many Australian artists have exhibited in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern?’

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 46, 2019

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