This article was first published for Artery on 4 July 2014
In highly acclaimed artist Richard Bell’s latest sharply observed film, The Dinner Party, a group of white Australians discuss their private views on the interrelationship between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people. They sip wine over a sumptuous meal in a luxurious Brisbane riverside mansion, oblivious to their own privileged position as they blithely perpetuate racist stereotypes and myths.
The film is the final instalment in Bell’s Imagining trilogy of video works, which includes the equally confronting and provocative, Scratch an Aussie (2008) and Broken English (2009). Produced with the assistance of Bell’s Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship, The Dinner Party premiered at his solo Sydney exhibition, Imagining Victory at Artspace last year.
The support of Bell’s Fellowship also assisted with his first solo exhibition in Melbourne, Lessons in Etiquette and Manners, at Monash Museum of Art (MUMA); the development of other new works; his participation in the Moscow Biennale and Sakahàn: 1st International Quinquennial of New Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada, Ontario.
‘The name was quite appropriate,’ Bell says, reflecting on the MUMA exhibition, which presented a range of Bell’s paintings, video works and installations from throughout his career. ‘They were good lessons in etiquette and manners for the Australian people, I reckon; particularly in the way Australian people treat Aboriginal people. ‘ Adding in his understated way, ‘You know, they could use a little bit of guidance in that area.’
MUMA also saw the first incarnation of Bell’s work now known as Embassy, that recreates the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected in 1972 on the lawns of old Parliament House. As an artwork, Embassy not only comments on the struggle for Aboriginal political and land rights but challenges the place Aboriginal art holds within the art world. It can also serve as a site for public debates and events within the gallery context.
Bell’s Fellowship helped him further develop Embassy for the Moscow Biennale. It was also the centrepiece of his first West Australian solo exhibition at PICA earlier this year, presented alongside William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time as part of the Perth International Art Festival. Bell feels the PICA show has been particularly influential. ‘I think that show really lifted my profile in Australia’
Born in Charleville, Queensland, Bell is a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities. He was a political activist in the 70s before turning to art in the late 80s, finding it a powerful outlet for both his biting political message and larrikin humour. Bell gained national prominence in 2004 winning the National Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATISSA) with his painting, Scientia e metaphysica, which infamously proclaimed, “Aboriginal Art, it’s a white thing”. He is a founding member of proppaNOW, the Brisbane-based Aboriginal artists collective and has also recently gained prominence as the host of the NITV series, Colour Theory.
Bell has exhibited widely in Australia and internationally in group and solo exhibitions including the 2013 Asian Art Biennale, multiple Sydney and Adelaide Biennials and The National Indigenous Art Triennial. In North America his reputation as an ‘important and powerful voice’ within the field of contemporary Australian art has been building for some time, particularly following his Uz vs Them tour and 2009 Location One International Fellowship and exhibition, I Am Not Sorry.
Most recently, Bell has been developing a new video work, Larry (pictured). With something of a mischievous laugh, Bell says it is a story about an evil art dealer who’s ruining the art world. He hopes to complete the work later this year.
‘It gave me freedom to do a lot more works than I could have otherwise,’ Bell says of the Fellowship. For instance, without it he would probably have had to put off making The Dinner Party he says or it would have been ‘really, really tight.’ ‘It came in really handy there.’
Bell was of five artists to receive an Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship for an Established Artist last year. Worth $100,000, the Fellowships represented a unique investment in an artist, providing them with the financial support to develop their practice and experiment, as recognition of their significant body of work and ongoing contribution to Australian art.
‘I think that’s one of the reasons I got it,’ Bell says. ‘Cause the people handing it out knew that I’d do something significant with the money.’ Adding with a laugh, ‘I’ve got a habit of making people look good.’