Richard Bell: 'My art is an act of protest'

Meet the artist and activist who challenges preconceived ideas about Aboriginal art

My shows are an act of protest. They’re activist. I’m the boss, ok?

I found out that I could say whatever the f**k I wanted to in art and not get arrested!

It says ‘Thou Shalt Have But One House’. You know, all those greedy f**kers with more

than one house? You can only live in one at a time, yeah?

Old Aboriginal saying.

I don’t have a visual diary. Sometimes I’ll wake up and maybe it’ll be just a name but I’ll know from that name. The beginning is the idea and then I’ll come up with the text.

Property is the most popular wealth creation scheme in this country. This is a suggestion

to this nation. Pay the rent. We’re the owners. We will always be the owners of this place.

This is a picture of a young woman from this year’s ‘Invasion Day’ march. ‘Invasion Day’, for the state here, is actually ‘Australia Day’ and it celebrates the arrival of the first fleet. Which is just an outrageous insult to us. So we respond by calling that day ‘Invasion Day’ and we have marches every year.

Brisbane has a history of protest even though it’s one of the most conservative cities in the country.

It’s certainly conducive to making art. I had a very different art education to most people.

I found people that I thought knew about art and I interrogated them, very often in league with beer and barbeques and that sort of thing.

From what I saw of it, all the discourses were around white people and started by white men. I didn’t want to participate in that so I wrote my own f**king discourse!

I wrote an essay that I called ‘Bell’s Theorem’. It essentially allowed me to position myself in contemporary art.

How you going there? Where you at, you at home? I’m coming towards your place now. It’s such a big story, he’s way more famous than me.

Talking to Richard in the 1980s you wouldn’t reckon he knew anything about f**king art. I was 21. I was curious, I wanted to know about the so-called Black Power Movement.

They were activists, they didn’t sit back waiting around. They ended up giving me a job in the Aboriginal Legal Service. They taught us about Aboriginal history. They taught us about the law. Public speaking. Bail applications for people. All those experiences within the Aboriginal Rights Movement, I learned so much. Amazing. It’s formed the basis for my art practice.

  • [Radio presenter] I’m speaking to wellknown indigenous artist born here in Charleville. He’s on his way through, it’s fantastic to see. It’s Richard Bell. G’day Richard, how are you? What got you into art?
  • [Bell] It was an accident. My brother Marshall, hewanted to get into art and craft and I started out in tourist art. I was making boomerangs and spears and digeridoos and stuff like that. We went in different directions. I was fortunate to get the Aboriginal side of that education. Marshall got that. I went more to what had happened and transpired in my life and I’ve called on that, my life experience to make art.
  • [Presenter] You’re travelling around out here in the West, most times you’re running into family.
  • [Bell] I’m going to Mitchell this afternoon to have a look at where I lived and where my home got bulldozed.

This town was really racist. I didn’t realise how racist until I moved away. I realised that I had to reinvent myself and I couldn’t do that here. I had to go somewhere else.

16, New Year’s Eve, I left home to go to a party and just didn’t come back from that party, I just kept going. I was thinking it might be a bit further this way.

We’d have to look through the trees to see the school bus that went by that picked up the white kids along this road. But not us. We weren’t entitled to get that bus.

I didn’t think that much about it. I just thought ‘f**k it, I don’t want to get on the bus with all them cheeky white kids anyway.’

Maybe it’s over there, a bit further. Ah here it is, this is where it was. So this is a long time ago, this is 1968. I was 14 at the time.

The federal government gave all the councils around the country with Aboriginal populations money to send infrastructure over to us. Running water, we had no running water. I think somebody had the bright idea to remove us so that they didn’t have to spend this money on us. And I assume that they spent it elsewhere, looking after themselves.

The lazy f**kers couldn’t even clean it up properly. Goddammit, yeah. This is the bed that me and my brother shared. F**k me. They couldn’t even take the f**ker away.

They couldn’t do a job. Look at all this. The nature of what I do requires me also to be positive. What looks like an impossible task, I don’t believe is impossible. I think anything is possible.

I make art for other Aboriginal people. That's who I make it for, that’s my audience. And I want them to be empowering to them.

I make art for other Aboriginal people... I want [my art] to be empowering to them.

Richard Bell

Richard Bell makes art that addresses contemporary issues around identity, place and politics. The artist is a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities.

‘I found out that I could say whatever the f**k I wanted to in art and not get arrested’, says the artist.

In 2002 Bell published ‘Bell’s Theorem’, stating that ‘Aboriginal Art is not controlled by Aboriginal People’. In his essay, Bell proposes that Aboriginal art is a white invention.

Aboriginal Art has become a product of the times. A commodity. The result of a concerted and sustained marketing strategy, albeit, one that has been loose and uncoordinated. There is no Aboriginal Art Industry. There is, however, an industry that caters for Aboriginal Art. The key players in that industry are not Aboriginal. They are mostly white people whose areas of expertise are in the fields of Anthropology and "Western Art"

Richard Bell, Bell's Theorum 2002

Tate, The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and Qantas are partners in an International Joint Acquisition Programme for contemporary Australian art. Richard Bell Embassy 2013–Ongoing was purchased jointly by Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia with fund provided by the Qantas Foundation, 2016.

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