|Combative Aboriginal artist Richard Bell has won the National Aboriginial and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.|
|By Diana Bagnall.|
|The judges called it a "showstopper". Richard Bell's witty colour-bomb Scientia e Metaphysica (Bell's theorem) is that, and more. It lands a deadly punch in the guts of the industry which identifies, nurtures and feeds off Australia's extraordinarily successful indigenous artists. "Aboriginal Art, it's a white thing" reads the text of Bell's last-minute entry ("I got cold feet a couple of times") to the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
Bell, 49, an irascible and voluble conversationalist, seemed genuinely confounded by his win in the country's most prestigious competition for indigenous artists. The award has been dominated by artists from the Northern Territory's 40 art-producing remote communities, with Brisbane-based Bell only the second artist from the cities to carry off the $40,000 prize. What's more, his painting spat, at least indirectly, in the face of the institution that founded and has kept the award going all these years. The Northern Territory Art Gallery, with visionary curator of Aboriginal art Margie West in the driving seat, is recognised as a hugely influential force in an indigenous art market estimated to turn over at least $100m a year.
West politely refuses to buy into Bell's wholesale criticism of the art market: the market, she agrees, has caused some inequities because it selects and privileges certain artists above others, but indigenous artists operate within the system and some have real negotiating power within it.
Bell, she comments, is someone who has wanted to elude categorisation, "but he owes his art and information to indigenous people". Bell agrees: "Everything I've got has come from being Aboriginal." But the man who got his art training on the street doing graffiti and painting tourist pictures doesn't do pretty any more. "I do ugly quite well."
When he chose to receive his prize wearing a black T-shirt saying "white girls can't hump", quite a few people in the crowd on that balmy night in Darwin last Friday seemed to agree. But as Bell told me the previous afternoon, all successful artists market themselves. "You see me, you see my paintings." We see you, Richard.