Profile on ABC-TV's Message Stick by Rachel Maza
April 2004 , 6 pm AEST
Though he may not have expected to win Australia's most important Indigenous art prize, Richard Bell got as much if not more attention for what he wore on the day, "white girls can't hump".
Born in Charleville in 1953, into the Kamilaroi tribe. Richard was a
leader in the first group of urban Indigenous artists whose work provided
a means of expression during the lead up to the 1988 bi-centenary of white
Australian settlement. During this time, Richard focused on 'challenging
non-Indigenous artists who appropriated Indigenous imagery in their work'
& the perceived notions of traditional and modern Indigenous art. As
well, his work addresses contemporary issues such as religion, art &
politics. Richard now lives in Brisbane.
Transcript of ProgramRACHAEL MAZA, PRESENTER: Hello, and welcome to Message Stick. I'm Rachael Maza. In 2003, Richard Bell won the National Indigenous Arts Award. Always controversial, his work is a statement that challenges society as well as art.
RICHARD BELL: I'm Richard Bell. I come from...Kooma, Kamilaroi, Jiman, Goreng Goreng peoples. I was born at...at Charleville, in the base hospital there. It was across the railway line from...the yumba at Charleville, which is on the sandhill. By the time I was born, um...there was a tap there and, um, there was four thunderboxes. Um...they weren't even that - they were big, uh...holes dug there, and that served as our toilets. I lived my first two years in a tent, waiting for the white people to throw away enough tin... (Chuckles) .for us to build a tin shack and to move up...in life from a tent to a tin shack.
WOMAN 1: I remember the day Richard was born. And his...his mother, she called him Richard, but she really wanted everyone to call him 'Ricky'. Isn't it funny how people get nicknames? And yet, she had this 'Ricky' picked out for Richard and he never ever was called Ricky.
WOMAN 2: I know it sounds silly, but we never had deodorant when we was growing up.
WOMAN 1: Course we didn't! (Laughs)
RICHARD BELL: We never!
WOMAN 2: No, and I...
WOMAN 1: We were lucky to get a bit of bread!
RICHARD BELL: What's that - 'deodorant'? I've never heard of it!
WOMAN 1: What, we used to have to swim all the time.
WOMAN 2: Yeah, that was... I was thinking about that. I was thinking... I told you, didn't I? "I don't think we had deodorant when we were growing up." I said, "That's disgusting!" (Laughs)
Well, I knew Richard because his mother was married to my uncle and we lived on the yumba in Charleville when we were all kids growing up. The fathers would go away working. You'd never see them for months. And the mother, she used to just have to cope with whatever. In them days, the fathers didn't get paid until the end of the droving trip, so you just sort of...battled on and lived on whatever, you know? Nothing was easy.
RICHARD BELL: I thought it was normal. You know, like, um... It wasn't till I grew up and, um...you know, I heard these people talking about, um, you know, single-parent families. And I...damn, you know, it was... Nearly everybody grew up single...with, um...single parents - you know, the mum being at home, the men either being out doing some sort of seasonal work, 'cause that was basically the only work available for Aboriginal people then. It was always, you know, at the bottom, yeah? The only way we survived was p...had to live off the land, you know. 'Cause our people weren't allowed into, um...the shops in town and that sort of thing, so... We might be able to get some food - you know, some fruit and vegies from the Chinese garden. Um...there'd be hawkers come around. But basically, we had... you know, we had to go out and hunt, um, the native animals, and the not-so-native animals as well, I suppose. Shoes. I never had a new pair of shoes... (Laughs) ..the whole time I was growing up. And...sometimes, I
'd wear them out, you know, like, and I'd have to, you know, put cardboard and stuff there, you know. And there was always burrs, you know, like, um, bullheads or cat heads, and cactus around you, like, you know? Damn, you needed shoes, and we... Yeah, at school - especially school shoes, man.
WOMAN 2: I hated that life, and I still do today. because it wasn't really a life. We lived in tin huts and...ate whatever we could, and you never saw your father, and your mother battled, and... You know, it was no life.
WOMAN 1: They never had anything, so you don't miss it if you haven't got it. So, they seemed happy enough, but I think it's now that they're older that the hurt is really setting in because they've, uh, missed so much when they were young.
RICHARD BELL: Well, Retta Dixon Home was a place where the State brought... half-caste, uh, Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. It was in Darwin. There was very little fun there, and...it was very strict religious indoctrination - like, we weren't allowed to play ball games on Sunday. There was all sorts of things happening in the dormitories and that sort of thing. There were just, what seemed to me, hundreds of beds. They just...you know, all these young Aboriginal, uh, boys and young men...were there in row upon row of beds. Um, the old, um, uh... kapok, uh, coir mattresses and pillows. (Groans) It was horrific. That was the first... Me and my brother - I was six at the time and my brother was three. We both had to sleep there in that dormitory, away from our mother, you know, um, for the first time, uh, that I-I could remember. That was pretty traumatic. She was a very talented woman, my mother. She could cook, um...paint. She used to make wedding cakes and decorate those sort of things. And sh
e was a...very compassionate person.
WOMAN 2: She learnt them how to ice the cakes. I always say that's how he come to be a painter, with the steady hand. There was a family wedding here in Toowoomba, and Sarah and Richard and Marshall and the father came down. On the Tuesday morning, me and my husband, we took, um, Richard's mother out along the road out towards Oakey and we waited there till she got a lift. She wanted to get home to Mitchell. And, uh, anyway...the next day, we got the message she died in her sleep that night.
RICHARD BELL: I was devastated, of course, to lose my mother at such a young age, but, um... she had prepared me...for that time. Um... And it was, sort of, a lot to take on my shoulders, um... But she gave me my, uh, 21st birthday on, uh, party on my 17th. Um...she died six months later, so, you know, like, um, I had an inkling that it was coming. So we ended up, um...living with, um, a family that we knew from out of Charleville...Harold and Nelly Leedie.
RICHARD READS TEXT ON ARTWORK:
"Hide your wife. Hide your mother.
Your sisters. Hide your husband.
Hide your father, your brothers.
Your uncles, your aunties, your cousins.
Hide your indignation.
Hide your love.
Be afraid. Be very afraid."
RICHARD BELL: I went down to Dalby...and, um, I got there and...it was the first time I can remember in my life being treated like a human being by white people. And it...it really sticks out of my mind. Um...that was, sort of, um... That was a great help to...to me, you know, like, 'cause I...I didn't know what I was going to do. I knew that there was something wrong - you know, I couldn't understand, you know, like, how... we could, um...be the descendants of, you know, the owners of the lands that we were living on, you know, like, um...and have nothing and be so impoverished and so oppressed.
ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF STUDENT PROTESTS IN FAVOUR OF EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ABORIGINALS:
RICHARD BELL: I started learning about the black consciousness and the fact that, um, we had rights that, um, were inalienable. And to this day, you know, we still have those rights - they just continue to be denied us. Well, that's shaped, um... my, uh...my art practice, um, those...those years. I actually didn't get into art until I was 34. And, um, well, that's nearly 16 years ago now. I was sitting down there drawing pretty pictures - you know, like, tourist pictures for the tourists, you know, and this guy came up to me and he said, "Why don't you get into fine art?" I went, "What are you talking about? Look at these fine lines here..." (Laughs) ..I said. And he laughed, of course. He said, "No, I mean high art." Now, I'm a recovering homophobe, so forgive me - um, I said, "That's for girls and poofters," you know, this arts drawing. And, um...and, um, he... he laughed again and he said, "Now... No, look, um..." 'Cause I was still into activism at that stage, you know. And he said, "Look, you can reach a
bigger audience and a more influential audience through art," you know, "than you can marching up and down the street." Um...oh, I said, "No. If I did that, I'd tell these white folks exactly what I think of them." And he said, "Just do it." So I thought about that, and I, um...I rang him a couple of days later and started following him around to galleries and went to artists' studios, this sort of thing. I went around, had a good look at the art world. What I saw was that there was nobody doing what I said I'd do. You know, like there's a lot of, um, Aboriginal people talking about issues, but they were being really subtle about it. I wanted to do something really direct. Um...so when I started doing it, um, I got collected straightaway, because it filled a gap that was there.
RICHARD'S ARTWORK 'MASTERPIECE' IS DEPICTED ONSCREEN. A WHITE WOMAN IS CAPTIONED SAYING, "WHY, RICHARD, DARLING, THIS PAINTING IS A MASTERPIECE! MY, SOON EVEN AUSTRALIANS WILL BE CLAMORING FOR YOUR WORK":
RICHARD BELL: I'd probably describe what I'm doing now as pop art. I'm happy to be doing it and calling it pop art because, um, when I was living out in the yumbas out there in Western Queensland, I'd heard of these stories of, you know, Andy Warhol and, um, uh, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and these sort of guys, um, playing havoc, you know, with the establishment. And I...I was...really admired that. You know, like, there was... Being a young person, I was into rebellion and so on, so I was interested in that. And that was my, sort of, first contact with, uh, fine art.
RICHARD BELL (READS TEXT ON PAINTING): "Your ancestors were the kindest, most humane colonising power in the history of the world. Thank you for oppressing me and my people. After living the life of luxury for thousands of years, we thoroughly deserve to be deprived of even our most basic needs. Your zealous implementation of said deprivation is noted. Oh, and thanks for letting us live on concentration camps without gas chambers. How can I thank you enough? I am humiliated."
RICHARD BELL: You know, everybody in this country, you know, desperately wants this country to be seen as the greatest country on earth. We all think it's the greatest country on earth. Even, you know, with all its faults now. Sorry, it ain't anywhere near the best country in the world. It's closer towards the bottom, you know, as far as the morality, um, goes. This country doesn't have a morality anymore. The stolen wages, um, case here in Queensland was just absolutely appalling. Sovereignty is at the crux of the whole issue. This is the only country on the planet where sovereignty has not been addressed with the native peoples in the form of treaties. We should never negotiate anything until they are prepared to sit back and say, "Yes, well," you know, "you DID own this land. Your relations," you know, "your ancestors owned this land. You DO have something to say here. You do have something to contribute." Let's talk about fairness here - you know, like, it's...it's just not fair. Australians always pride
themselves on giving everybody a fair go. Well, they give everybody a fair go who's got fair skin, the way I see it.
EXCERPT FROM AWARDS CEREMONY:
RICHARD BELL Oh, thank you. I didn't think, um, I could actually win, um... with a painting that, uh... sort of, um, was criticising, um...uh...an institution, a part of an industry that I was, um, challenging.
REPORTER: Is it a controversial decision that you're the winner?
RICHARD BELL: Gee, I hope so. (Laughs)
I'm trying to promote discussion, um, of important issues in Australian society, you know. And...and it's...it's very difficult here...here in Australia to get people to even think about things. You know, like, I'm the sort of guy, if you've got your fly undone, I'll tell you you've got it undone. You got some snot in your nose, I'll tell you - "You've got some snot in your nose." It's really frustrating for...for me to tell the nation that, you know, their fly's undone and they don't actually take any notice of it. That's how I feel, you know, like, um, talking to a lot of white people, 'cause they just don't listen - they see it and it just goes straight through, and they don't actually take any notice of it. The role of the artist that I've chosen, that I see, is very similar to that of the roving minstrels and the balladeers and the puppeteers and court jesters in...you know, in olden-time Europe and that sort of thing. Well, they were social commentators, um, and they were telling the people, you know, w
hat was happening. They would mix with the royalty and be able to tell what's happening in the royal situation, blah, blah, blah. And then they'd go back down to the people, relay that back up to the royalty, blah, blah, blah, and this sort of thing, so... Um, I'm sort of a go-between for the Aboriginal people - um, a conduit, if you like, for thoughts from the black consciousness.
RICHARD READS TEXT ON ARTWORK:
"A lie for a lie and a myth for a myth.
1992. 1770. Mabo.
1976. 1971. Gove.
Milirrpum. Native title.
Treaty. Land rights.
RICHARD BELL: One of the only rays of hope that we have is that, you know, um...people... there are people who, if they're willing to buy a piece of confrontation like I produce, well, they're... they're obviously ready to be, um, spoken to on other issues... as well, you know, so, um... It's like in everything now - there's good and bad in...in the white people as well. You know, um... It's not all...not all bad, you know. Like, uh, same with Aboriginal people - um...we're not all bad neither.
WOMAN 2: Well, I'm very proud of him, because he came from a hard life as well. And I don't think he liked it any more than I did. So, you know, it's a credit to him for what he's achieved. You know, he's... He never had it any easier than any other black person in Australia, so good on him.
WOMAN 1: I'm proud of Richard. I've always been proud of them. And they've always looked up to me, and that. So, very proud of their achievement and that. Even my daughter rang up today to congratulate Richard, because he worked here with them in the Legal Service and that. So we're very proud of Richard... and Marshall also. Yeah. Great achievement.
RICHARD BELL: Uh, Aunt Zona has, sort of, um, has been around, um, and supported me and my brother, you know, all through our lives, sort of thing. And, like, we've, um... just keep going back and...to keep... Because she was very good friends with my mother, um, and I get stories and that, you know, uh, about the old times and that sort of thing, so that was, you know, really important for...for us both. I'm amazed... Like, I never thought that I'd get to Melbourne. I thought that maybe one day I'd get to Sydney. You know, like, I've been to Europe a half a dozen times and United States and Canada - and, well, I'm...due for my second visit there, so... I would not have, um, believed that I could live in a house with, um...with polished floors. (Chuckles) I just had no expectations like that as a young child. I thought that, um, we were doomed to oblivion. Gee, I think I've had a...a really fortunate life, despite all the hardships and that. They just served to toughen me up. Made me compassionate, caring, an
d people might find this hard to believe, but humble as well.
RACHAEL MAZA: If you want more information on any of the programs, just check out the Message Stick site on abc.net.au/message .