Date: Tue, 23 Sep 2003 09:41:23 +1000 (EST)

Outside the square

By Debra Aldred

For Aboriginal artist Richard Bell, it's about time Brisbane faced up to its dark heart, writes Debra Aldred.

BRISBANE after 4pm was a dangerous place to be if you were an Aborigine in the mid-1800s.

Mounted police patrolled a one square mile (2.5sq km) exclusion zone around Brisbane from Boundary St at West End to Boundary St at Spring Hill, protecting European settlers from violent clashes with tribes who had been forced from their lands.

Brisbane indigenous artist Richard Bell is now setting up camp in the heart of that exclusion zone -- at Brisbane City Hall. He's taking a new fight to the seat of power, and he's not prepared to lose ground.

Brisbane will celebrate the 79th anniversary of the City of Brisbane Act next month with the opening of a new social history gallery, the Museum of Brisbane, at Brisbane City Hall.

Bell has been invited to co-curate one of three opening exhibitions in the museum, a collaborative show which explores this dark period in history, titled One Square Mile.

His hope is that people will look at the exhibition and recognise that attitudes toward black Australians are still being influenced by past judgments.

"It's this obscure part of Brisbane's history, this division of the town, and I think it will be disturbing for a lot of people," Bell says.

"All the Boundary streets around town are part of that history, the boundary that Aboriginal people could not cross. And ultimately in World War II, African Americans weren't allowed in, either."

While Bell has none of his own contemporary works in the exhibition, he and fellow curator Michelle Helmrich have chosen a band of Queensland artists to do the talking, including Fiona Foley, Luke Roberts, Lindy Lee, Gordon Bennett, Tracey Moffat, Destiny Deacon, Vernon Ah Kee and Archie Moore.

He also has extended the parameters of the exhibition to look not only at this physical boundary, but also boundaries surrounding other minority groups in the community.

"There were boundaries that were imposed on women -- Lindy Lee is talking about Chinese exclusion and Luke Roberts is talking about the exclusion of gays in the 1970s which was appalling, I've never seen anything more ferocious."

Bell is using the high-profile gig as well as his might as one of the 50 most collectible artists in Australia, and his new status as winner of the $40,000 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, to draw attention to past injustices and to bring people face to face with what he sees as a chronic case of blamelessness sweeping contemporary society.

"I'm at a loss to explain why Australia keeps churning out generation after generation of racists, and people who take no responsibility for past events," he says.

"So I've picked up on this issue of blamelessness, and it's not just restricted to racists. There are sexists too -- anybody who denies that something bad happened in the past, who has this black-armband view of history. We have to address these issues of the past before we can move on."

While Australia's most recognised modern indigenous artist, the late Albert Namatjira of Hermannsburg near Alice Springs, used the richness of colour in landscape to communicate with non-indigenous Australians, Bell uses colourful language embedded in his work, a confrontational tactic to jog Australians out of their complacency toward indigenous communities, their culture and art. nation".

And then there are words that just provoke, like the "White girls can't hump" T-shirt he wore last month to accept his $40,000 art award cheque in Darwin.

"I was trying to address this issue of pedophilia in society in general, with the Aboriginal people in particular, and I found it so really difficult to do, and then it just ran through my head: white girls can't hump," he says.

"I thought that's as good as it gets. It's a very abstract view of the issue but it operates on so many levels. What does hump mean? How many women consider themselves girls any more? I was just having a piss- take, and for people to take it seriously, well I have a deep regret that they have those insecurities."

Imagine the New-Age Metro Man without the make-up and social graces, and you've got a broad idea of where Bell comes from.

He was born in Charleville in south-western Queensland and spent his early teenage years in nearby Mitchell before moving to Dalby in 1970.

But he left rural life behind when he was 22, moving to Sydney, Moree and then Brisbane in 1987. He moved back to NSW in 1997 but returned to Brisbane in 2001.

Now 49, he says he could never return to the country.

From the home he shares with one of his three daughters in the booming inner-city suburb of Windsor, he's surrounded by the creature comforts his parents never had.

He's also parted ways with Brisbane's indigenous Fire-Works Gallery in Fortitude Valley, which helped launch his professional career in 1993, and is establishing himself as an urban indigenous artist in the mainstream gallery system with current representation by Bellas Gallery.

"I didn't want to be ghettoised and Aboriginal art is marketed in an ethnographic framework, and to me that does damage to the artists," he says. "It's tying them up in knots.

"They think they have to have this story attached to each piece and that's restricting them to do a certain type of work. Basically, Europeans and the Americans are not interested in abstraction with meaning, they are just interested in abstraction. And these guys are doing the best abstraction in the world."

To prove his point, Bell submitted a 4800-word essay with his entry in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, titled Bell's Theorem, which was "a piss-take on the anthropological requirements for Aboriginal art to have this f---ing story. I did a piece of art that wasn't Aboriginal art but I gave them a story."

He is the second urban artist in 20 years to win the award.

No matter which way you hold it, Bell's work has none of the spiritual messages and romanticism contained in traditional Aboriginal art.

But he is well aware that he is creating a contemporary urban Dreamtime through his work, a story which is already being told in the heart of rural Aboriginal communities.

"A few of the women from Western Australia wanted to know how my painting won, what process allowed that painting to win. It was completely different from everything else that entered. And the dialogue is happening as we speak.

"I think the work that comes out of that community is going to be dramatically different next year."

Just as Bell is helping craft a new identity for Aboriginal artists, he has issued the challenge for Australians to look closely at their own collective identity through exhibitions such as One Square Mile.

"Australians are more Aboriginalised than they realise," he says, an opinion that expatriate Australian Germaine Greer has been supporting vocally across the Australian media in recent weeks.

"Part of that comes from the spirit of this land, the spirit of a fair go. It doesn't exist among Anglo-Saxons anywhere else in the world. The tall-poppy syndrome is harsher here than anywhere else in the world. And the storytelling, that's a really Aboriginal thing to do.

"But there is no hope for Aboriginal people and for this country to realise the potential for it to be the greatest country on Earth. We don't have a culture of our own. It's this mishmash of things European and not quite European.

"Our attempts to make an Australian experience are quite lamentable. Look at Ned Kelly, a murdering, lying thief and Waltzing Matilda, eulogising another thief.

And the thing with Ned Kelly is it reinforces this feeling of blamelessness. People think, `My ancestors weren't actual criminals; they only came out here because of the British military machine, they only stole a loaf of bread, blah blah blah. That's bullshit. Some of them were hardened criminals.

"You can't have a future without a past, and there is a lot about our past that we need to understand."

Namatjira made historic inroads to secure Aboriginal rights, becoming the first Aborigine to vote in Australia in 1957, 10 years before the rest of the population.

Forty-six years later, Bell is revisiting the injustices of the past through his art to help Australia move closer to reconciliation and a broader understanding of our own Aboriginality.

"It's a relentless campaign, but it's the reason I got into fine art. I have a direct message, not a subtle one and through art I can reach more people," he says.

The Museum of Brisbane will open at Brisbane City Hall on October 25.

© Queensland Newspapers

Source: The Courier Mail, 20 September 2003