​Opening Weekend of Richard Bell’s Embassy

Mandy Merzaban reviews the opening weekend of Richard Bell: Embassy which took place in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern on 20 and 21 May 2023. The events were organised in collaboration with Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational.

What does it mean for art institutions with colonial legacies and infrastructures to host conversations about the traumatic and ongoing realities of Empire? This question looms over the form and structure of numerous public events that attempt to hold space for discussions on histories of colonial theft, anti-colonial resistance, civil rights and reparation; in particular, those events where speakers of historically marginalised groups are invited to speak to audiences about their experiences and practices as part of more inclusive programming. On the one hand, these opportunities can be a way to access the audiences and platforms of major institutions, to share perspectives that are underrepresented or actively being erased. On the other hand, ​and ​perhaps within the same gesture of inclusion, platforming these perspectives co-opts radical ideas into existing frameworks of institutional legitimacy and power holding. The museum, not unlike the university as contemplated by scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in ​​The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013), is where knowledge is produced, appropriated, retrofitted into existing epistemologies and, importantly, depoliticised. Underlying this is a separation between theory and practice that dilutes transformative and actionable potential – keeping things in theory. In light of these conflicting forces, perhaps a more immediate question is then: Given the simultaneous gestures of inclusion and co-option at play, how are events of this nature organised and are the spaces created with an appropriate degree of sensitivity to safely hold the magnitude of what is shared?

This question is brought to the fore with the arrival of Aboriginal activist and artist Richard Bell’s installation Embassy in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Consisting of a large tent bearing a sign reading ‘Aboriginal Embassy’, with seats for guest speakers and a public audience, the space is dotted with several protest placards. Looming overhead, across the Turbine Hall bridge, Bell’s work Pay the Rent 2009 consists of a digital screen displaying the ever-increasing amount of rent owed to Aboriginal people by the British government since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 until the Australian government was federated in 1901.

Left to right: Richard Bell, Leila Hassan Howe, Hannah Ishmael and Farrukh Dhondy as part of Embassy: Collective Action at Tate Modern, 21 May 2023.

© Jordan Anderson

A key participatory feature of Embassy is to act as a space for public discussions about Aboriginal land rights and marginalised histories. To activate Embassy at Tate, Bell hosted, in collaboration with Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational, a two-day series of five public talks inside the tent. The first day, titled Embassy: Sovereignty, centred on existential, social, cultural and legal injustices committed against the rights of Aboriginal and Indigenous groups worldwide. The topic was explored through numerous specific first-hand experiences of social activism and art making in response to oppressive social conditions. On the second day, Embassy: Collective Action included a series of sessions around archive building, collective organising and activism within the UK. This collection of topics was immense, and perhaps too large in scope for only two days of discussion. The talks contained the specific, emotional and direct experiences of a diverse range of speakers including artists, lawyers, activists and other arts and activism practitioners.

​​​​​Embassy both holds and refers to an ongoing form of political resistance that began in 1972, when four activists of Aboriginal groups pitched a beach umbrella as the first Aboriginal Embassy on the grounds of Canberra’s Parliament House. It was a demonstration against then Australian Prime Minister William McMahon’s refusal to recognise Aboriginal rights to ancestral lands by instead instigating a ​​​​perpetual land leasing scheme.1 Now jointly owned by Tate and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Embassy is simultaneously a participatory art object collected by the colonial regimes it directly resists and a mandated space for and about Aboriginal emancipation. In this way, it juggles issues of acquiescence with the need to access a space that has colonised transnational, cultural ‘legitimacy’ in order to disseminate a message of oppressed perspectives.

Bell acknowledged this at the beginning of Embassy: Sovereignty’s inaugural talk, saying that we have arrived in the ‘heart of the beast, the British Empire’ to share our experiences and vantage points. By ‘we’, he was referring to himself and his first guest speaker Ghillar Michael Anderson, Euahlayi Elder, activist and one of the organisers of the Aboriginal Embassy in 1972. Anderson spoke candidly about his own experiences resisting the Australian government’s motion, and about police brutality and memories of violent confrontations. He described poignantly how members of the older generation insisted on being on the front lines of demonstrations because of the suffering and death they had endured and witnessed for decades. He also pointed to the absurdity and cruelty of the legal system built on principles ​​​​like terra nullius,2 which arbitrarily ​​justified British ownership of land by rendering Aboriginal people as ​​​​inapplicable occupants or owners’ because they did not meet British legal criteria. Anderson said that we operate in a ‘society of thieves and they appoint the judges now, they have the parliaments and they elect themselves to those parliaments and so they maintain the lie and… the theft’.

The sessions following this considered more closely the legal, cultural and emotional labyrinth of living within and in resistance to capitalist coloniser infrastructure. Presenters included Megan Cope, a Quandamooka (North Stradbroke Island, South East Queensland) artist, working with living sculptures that regenerate decimated oyster ecosystems, and New York-based conceptual artist, curator and writer Alan Michelson, a Mohawk member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, whose work is informed by Haudenosaunee knowledges and perspectives. The final two presentations were by Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum), a nêhiyaw (Cree) lawyer, protector and defender of land and water in what is now known as Saskatchewan, Canada, and Liisa-Rávná Finbog, a Sámi Indigenous museologist and archaeologist who co-organised the Sámi Pavilion under the auspices of the Nordic Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Finbog described the complex national and bureaucratic resistance that organisers faced in this process, including refusal to change the name of the Nordic Pavilion to better represent the Sámi peoples’ presence in the space.

A photograph depicting a man and a woman, the latter of which is speaking and pointing to something outside of the image frame.

Alan Michelson and Sylvia McAdam as part of Embassy: Sovereignty at Tate Modern, 20 May 2023.

© Jordan Anderson

Given the expansive topics, ​​​​​​I will focus on two particular sharings from Cope and McAdam’s presentations which thoughtfully highlighted the systemic dimensions of Aboriginal struggles through art, industry, environment and law. Cope presented her ecological art practice which cultivates slow, cumulative, environmentally conscious and regenerative sculptural interventions that creatively circumvent and bypass state and industrial extraction of the natural landscape of her homeland. One of the key difficulties faced by Quandamooka communities is the pace, power and consumerist prowess of industrial fisheries which operate through legislation that restricts oyster farming in a self-determined way. Her particular focus is on regenerating oyster populations and oyster middens (shell piles), informed by farming practices carried through generations by members of ​​her Country.3 Since the 1800s, overharvesting and industrial use of middens for building material have devastated the landscape. Cope described Kinyingarra Guwinyanba 2022, her living sculpture of an ever-growing series of timber poles bound with oysters that have been planted along the shore in Quandamooka Country to generate an oyster reef. Cope’s artwork proposes a unique ‘model of reciprocity’, whereby its main function is in regenerative collaboration with nature.

While the project was framed and funded as an artistic venture that enables it to bypass regulatory obstacles, it has had a scientifically tangible regenerative effect on the oyster population and tethered ecosystems, including stingrays and seagrass. Oysters thrive by relying on their ancestors, growing best on sites with high concentrations of shell waste. Oysters, Cope said, ‘are like us. They like to build cities and grow with each other… this is what really informed the structure’. She mentioned that oysters also clean the water (‘one single oyster processes nine bathtubs of water an hour’), leading to the potential regeneration of seagrass.

Perhaps one of the most wrenching and poignant moments of the final panel was the presentation by McAdam and her response during the Q&A session. She began her presentation in the nêhiyaw language, offering gratitude for nature, lineage and spiritual forces, before switching to English to say that this language of her ancestors is dying. Speaking about the links between Canada’s ​​Indian Act,4 apartheid and genocide, she informed the audience of the form and mode through which she shares the histories and ongoing oppression of her community: ‘I have learned to perform whiteness. This is a performance… So that I can speak to all of you and you may hear me.’ Then, speaking the coloniser’s language, she shared a teaching that she imparts to her first-year law students on recognising the language of domination and dehumanisation: ‘I’m not an activist [or protester]… Watch your language… No one in their right mind would call any of you protesters if someone invaded your home.’ In making this linguistic distinction, she unravelled the flawed foundation of interpreting Aboriginal demands for self-determination as a form of activism or protest. Such words distance Aboriginal peoples from the land that they co-existed with thousands of years before the invasion and legitimisation of coloniser systems of culture, legality and social organisation that ultimately justify dispossession retrospectively. This legitimation can even be found in the language of social justice that enacts the demands to reclaim those rights because it inadvertently validates the position of colonial governments.

​​​What unfolded in the Q&A after the deeply sensitive and traumatic content that was shared by the speakers revealed the limits of the form and structure of the event. Having a Q&A without trauma-informed ​​​​mediation and a set of guidelines for empathetic exchange ultimately leaves the terrain open to loaded and extractive questioning. Some audience questions were purely intellectual and failed to meet the depth, nuance and emotion of speakers’ sharings, in a way that could be harmful to speakers. One person asked if, ​​‘as artists, do you think in some ways that you tend to romanticise your struggles and your pain?’ – a question that indicated a short-sightedness and misunderstanding of the realities being shared. Another demanded (despite an emphatic ‘no’ from Finbog) that each speaker define what the word ‘indigenous’ meant to them, despite acknowledging the term’s vagaries and inadequacies. Their insistence on a response created palpable tension and discomfort in being confronted with a question about semantics after specific, nuanced experiences had already been shared. In her final contribution to the Q&A, McAdam movingly remarked: ‘Many people died so that I could be here. Many of my people, millions of them died, and I am here. So this is a performance; brown and Black bodies perform this in order to access these systems of domination and dehumanisation.’ These instances revealed the inadequacy of the conventional Q&A format to hold and mitigate conversations among groups with immense gaps in understanding around systemic violence. The question that arises here is if Q&As in such settings should be reconsidered to incorporate safety and trauma-informed practices in ways that mitigate the harm caused by short-sighted questions.

Taking on another series of conversations on day two, Embassy: Collective Action explored the terrain of protest, political organising and the significance of building Black-led archives and publications. The day traversed different historical moments of collective action that involved demonstrations, Black-led newspapers, supplemental education systems and taking up socio-political space through squatting. Speakers included Farrukh Dhondy, an Indian-born British writer and activist who recounted how, as a student, he connected with the South Asian Workers Union, the Black Power movement and Freedom News – a newspaper and bookshop in a Brixton squat, which was petrol-bombed in 1973. Responding to a question about practical actions like squatting and activism which seem less viable today, Dondy noted the most important dimension of activism is being in touch with communities that are struggling and how this kind of ‘active’ activism is not about campaigning but responding to and organising around what already exists.

Overlapping with Dondy’s generation of activism, Leila Hassan Howe, an editor and activist since the 1970s, was part of the Black Power movement. She is a founding member of collective and publication Race Today, worked on Black Voice journal, and taught in supplementary schools for Black children set up in response to the mistreatment of Black people in the mainstream education system. Hassan Howe recounted how Race Today was ‘the only radical voice that was talking about what was happening in the immigrant communities up and down the country, in the Asian, African and West Indian communities… oppression by the police, discrimination in housing and in education’. She also co-organised one of the most significant demonstrations in London’s history: the National Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, when 20,000 people marched to protest a racist arson attack in London’s New Cross that killed thirteen young Black people. Detailing the importance of recording these events, Hannah Ishmael, in her role as Collections and Research Manager, spoke about marginalised histories and the formation of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton in that same year, one of the first Black archives in London. She explained that initiatives like the Black Cultural Archives create a sense of historical community and presence of Black histories so that when moving anti-racist initiatives forward there is a sense that ‘you don’t need to start from scratch’.

Several practitioners working at the intersection of activism and art making were present in the conversations. Sofia Karim discussed her project Turbine Bagh 2020, highlighting the rise of extreme anti-Muslim sentiment in India that is under-reported in Western media and the curtailing of political activism and infringements on human rights in Bangladesh. Emory Douglas, who was Minister of Culture and Revolutionary Artist for the Black Panther Party in the San Francisco Bay Area, joined through video call to share numerous illustrations he made throughout the movement. Jacob V Joyce spoke about the significance of mural making as a practice that is in touch with communities because of how murals directly integrate into common public spaces and daily life.

The sheer scale of the subjects addressed in Bell’s tent generated a wide range of discussions, which is perhaps testament to the bottlenecked spaces that underrepresented perspectives are offered to stake their claims within hierarchical, colonial infrastructures. A crucial structural consideration and reckoning should now be made in organising and designing more trauma-informed spaces for sharing that mitigate potential harm. The conventional infrastructures of host organisations inevitably impart colonial manners to their events and hospitality. This brings to mind feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s notion of ‘conditional hospitality’ whereby ‘people of colour in white organisations are treated as guests, temporary residents in someone else’s home… welcomed on condition they return that hospitality by integrating into a common organisational culture, or by “being” diverse, and allowing institutions to celebrate their diversity.5 This includes not only guest speakers but those working within organisations tasked with creating these spaces. Inviting guest speakers to share an experience of generational oppression demands the creation of a hospitable container of ​emotional ​safety through trauma-informed communication. To a great degree, this cannot be sufficiently offered by coloniser systems and institutions but th​is​ is also, paradoxically, necessary for these institutions to provide. It requires a willingness to slow down and learn. What happens in this ​unsafe ​scenario is that the emotional labour and responsibility tends to fall on the guest to hold, respond and politely manage the repercussions of sharing honestly, candidly and vulnerably. Rather than placing the onus on those with privilege to receive what is shared with a sense of accountability and self-reckoning, it may be the case that ​​​​such sharing is too raw for​ the conditions of​ unvetted interaction with publics that may not be able to hold and respond with the care speakers deserve.