An Exhibition by Richard Bell
Dates: 6/8/03 - 22/8/03
Times: 10am - 4.30pm Monday to Friday
Where: Main Gallery, Metro Arts, Brisbane

Who’s Dreaming Now?

by Morgan Thomas ©

Today it is almost a standard form of approval to describe an artist’s work as ‘provocative’, ‘subversive’ or ‘confronting’. A certain style of radicalism in art has come to be institutionalised as part of the everyday currency of contemporary culture and criticism. Offering little in the way of resistance to the political or cultural structures which shape our experience, this style of radicalism does not finally interfere with the imperative of carrying on ‘business as usual’. It seems able to live in relatively peaceful co-existence with the mood of complacent conservatism (or enterprising self-interest) which has been in the ascendant in this country for some time now.

In this context, what I find interesting and even mysterious about the work of Richard Bell is that it really is confronting. It is provocative. It can be an unsettling and discomforting experience (and, incidentally, let’s note the name of a show which included Bell at Fire-Works Gallery in Brisbane late last year: ‘Discomfort: Relationships within Aboriginal Art’).

What is it that gives Bell’s work its unusual political ‘bite’? It’s tempting to equate the confrontational character of the work with the non-negotiable, ‘out-there’ political stance that it frequently seems to be advancing — and particularly to see this confrontation in terms of Bell’s liking for statements which he acknowledges are deliberately ‘inflammatory’ in their formulation.

We might recall, for example, that Bell is the Aboriginal artist who proclaims: ‘Aboriginal Art - it’s a White Thing.’ (This statement appears as the subtitle to a recent essay by Bell entitled ‘Bell’s Theorem’; it also forms the main text in Bell's Theorum, a painting from 2002.) We could note the patently incendiary — yet also cryptic and sometimes literally encrypted — phrases like ‘Kill Mabo’ and ‘Hide Ya Kidz’ that Bell comes up with in some of his paintings. Or, in a rather different vein, we could think of one part of the four-part work called Worth Exploring? (2002): a blown-up version of a carefully composed statutory declaration in which Bell points out the illegality of the white occupation of Australia, taking this illegality as the premise for the claim that everything subsequent to this occupation is ultra vires (illegal, outside the law), and drawing the consequence that all non-Aboriginal Australians must be counted as criminals and all Aboriginal people recognised as the victims of crime. We could also think of a new series of paintings, where Bell quotes from the comic-strip-style paintings of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein to comment on prevailing attitudes to black-white sexual relationships, broaching what is a taboo or ‘no-go’ area even now.

There is no doubt that the ‘difficulty’ of Bell’s work, certainly for white audiences, has a lot to do with the enjoyment Bell seems to take in coming up with the most provocative formulations possible, along with his evident lack of participation in talk of social cohesion and reconciliation. We might well speak of a kind of ultra-Aboriginalism being voiced in Bell’s work, an ultra-Aboriginalism which is confronting precisely insofar as it lays down a law which refuses to accept or ‘admit’ a great many of those (white) people who encounter it.

Thus when I read the statutory declaration in Worth Exploring?, I could say that it effectively situates me ultra vires’ — outside the law. The text of the declaration makes it difficult for me to identify with the political and legal position that it articulates. At the same time, in reading it, I am somehow put on the spot.

Something is going on here which seems to take us beyond the obvious kinds of provocation that I noted a moment ago, beyond the ‘inflammatory’ shock tactics which Bell so often employs — important as those shock tactics are. We perhaps start to see how the very posture of intransigence that Bell generally adopts in his work opens up the possibility of a radically different kind of relationship with its audience, a radically different form of communication.

In these more complicated terms, Bell’s work is confronting not so much because of its resistance to, or refusal of, its audience, or a large part of its audience, but rather because of the way it brings that audience face to face with a resistance, a knot, at the very heart of the history of black-white relations in Australia. From this point of view, the radicality of Bell’s work lies in the directness with which it addresses us. (Think of the title of a new essay by Bell: ‘Wot chew gun ado?’) If Bell again and again forces us to encounter that ‘difficulty’ — that injustice, that violence — at the basis of Australian history, it is surely because, for Bell, without a recognition of this, there can be no relation, no communication, no ‘dialogue’ whatsoever.

In this way the absolute and overriding concern of Bell’s work, the demand for an Aboriginal justice, comes to imply an appeal to what we might call, with or without Einsteinian overtones, a principle of relativity that is, an appeal to a sense of human community and interrelatedness. With Bell, the absolutism of the demand is intimately bound up with the relativity of the appeal: each supports and echoes the other. In Worth Exploring?, for example, it is precisely in the name of ‘civilisation’ that Bell sets down his judgement concerning the criminality of the Europeans who colonised Aboriginal lands — and of those who come after them and continue to profit from this criminal act.

We begin to see that what distinguishes Bell’s work is not in fact some blunt, full-frontal style of approach. In fact, in a strange way, we could say that its capacity to confront us depends on a kind of balancing-act that it always involves, a certain elusiveness (rather like that of the figures in his ‘Shape Shifters’ series) — there is a characteristic reliance on a certain twist or series of twists.

We could think, for example, of Bell’s use of appropriation in the confusingly named Untitled (1978), a work (in fact made in 2002) which consists of two digital prints on canvas. This is a work which wears its sources on its sleeve: the ghost gums and golden light leave no doubt that we’re looking at one of Hans Heysen’s pastoral idylls. At the same time, when we see how the same Heysen image is replicated — and subtly altered — in both prints (one picking out yellows accents, the other picking out pinks), we also know we’re looking at something very like the work of Australia’s key exponent of appropriation art, Imants Tillers. And indeed what Bell has done is to reproduce an untitled work made by Tillers in 1978 (hence the title) — a work which was by chance destroyed after it was bought by the National Gallery of Australia.

What happens when Bell adds another link to this chain of appropriation? It’s difficult not to see this work as making a satirical comment on the way in which white Australian culture fetishises and appropriates the dreaming (or marking) of land-ties in Aboriginal Desert painting. When these panels were hung last year above a dining setting decked out with Aboriginal designs and motifs, they looked like a lacerating riposte to the Desert paintings decorating the board rooms and lobbies of Australia’s corporate giants. It’s as if Bell, in turn, has chosen to take a benevolent interest in the colonial dreamscapes born of a white ‘mythology’ (just as Tillers’ non-existent ‘original’ of this work is also now, partly thanks to Bell, the stuff of myth).

Yet Untitled (1978) might equally be taken with a twist as calling on Heysen and Tillers to add to the history of an Aboriginal painting, or dreaming, of the land, bringing them to attest to its endurance in the face of colonisation, inviting them to be passing figures in this landscape. With its problematic relationship to the Heysen tradition, the painting of Albert Namatjira is then, perhaps, the real ghost haunting this work.

Bell engages in a different kind of balancing-act in Yam (2001), a collaboration with the renowned Western Desert painter Michael Nelson Jagamara. Interestingly, this collaboration arises from the fact that the story of the yam extends across a great stretch of the Australian continent — from Jagamara’s country in Central Australia to Bell’s in the east. While it may surprise us to see Bell painting in a seemingly traditional mode, what’s interesting is the way he inflects the large-format figuration of traditional motifs favoured by Jagamara in his recent work. In contrast to the bright colours which Jagamara generally uses, here the figure of the yam is not differentiated by colour; the whole work is a monochrome, painted in a sobre grey. Using a technique Bell frequently adopts in his paintings, the yam-figure is formed out of gravel which is glued to the surface of the canvas and then painted over. It is almost a figure in relief, one that not that easy to see unless you are looking at the painting side-on or in certain kinds of lighting.

With its subdued, monochrome mode of presentation, Bell’s and Jagamara’s Yam refuses the European ‘dream’ of an Aboriginal art that is inoffensively ‘spiritual’ and decorative — it thus refuses the (white) mythological creation of an Aboriginality that would fill up the void in Australian identity rather than questioning it. At the same time, the yam which gives this work its title seems to encapsulate the Aboriginal presence or voice that Bell seeks out in his work. Like a real yam, this yam is a partly concealed, subterranean presence — it is literally radical. In the way it buckles the surface of the picture and the way it branches out to fill the space, it is at once irruptive and almost infinitely extensive. Seen in this light, this painting perhaps becomes, in an elusive, understated way, a communication of the dream of Aboriginal justice and the desire for a genuine ‘civilisation’ of Australian culture.

By now it should be clear that the dreams we are thinking of here intersect and collide. The difficult balancing-act that Bell performs in his work traces their manifold connections — and at the same time puts their relation in question. This is the radicality of his work — its demand and its appeal.

The Koori History Website thanks Morgan Thomas for permission to re-publish this essay.