Learning to be proppa : Aboriginal artists collective ProppaNOW

Senior Research Fellow and Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia Margo Neale presents an incisive account of the genesis of proppaNOW the Queensland collective of urban Aboriginal Artists who are making waves in Australia and internationally with their intelligent brash art.

Richard Bell Scratch an Aussie 2008, DVD 10:00 mins, Dir. Suzanne Howard. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

In 2003 Brisbane-based artist Richard Bell won the 'Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award' with a painting emblazoned with the words "Aboriginal Art / It's A White thing".[1]

In 'Bell’s Theorem', the manifesto which underpins the work, he highlights some of the long-standing inequities in the Aboriginal Art market. Bell notes that while Aboriginal people produce the artworks, it is non-Aboriginal people who define and control the market [2]. In a later statement he adds, 'White people say what’s good. White people say what’s bad. White people buy it. White people sell it.’ [3]

For many non-Aboriginal people, the discontent expressed by Bell seemed excessive.

Surely the emergence of the international Aboriginal art market since the 1980s, and the subsequent efflorescence of Aboriginal art production, have brought great benefits to Aboriginal communities and artists throughout Australia; including improved access to the cash economy, international renown for many artists, and new venues for a political voice. From a people once classified as ‘without art’ [4], Aboriginal people in Australia are now recognised as the largest producers of art per capita. Over 50% of Australian artists are Indigenous, [5] and this coming from a group comprising only 2.4% [6] of the total population.

So why should Richard be so discontented?

Like a tricky virus, discrimination mutates into complex forms adapted to avoid detection. Undoubtedly many of the racist ideas of previous centuries have filtered through to the present day in this way. One particularly pernicious idea which arose during the 20th century is that Aboriginal populations can somehow be divided along a North-South axis of authenticity. In its most vulgar form this is expressed in the belief that only Aboriginal people living in remote communities are ‘real Aboriginals’. Only these communities, perceived as ethnographically black, are seen as leading authentic cultural lives with attendant authentic cultural expressions.

The double-edged racism of this paradigm presents Aboriginal people in remote communities as museum artefacts while portraying urban Aboriginal people as culturally extinct. They are clearly not white Australians, not multicultural Australians, nor are they truly Aboriginal. Left to haunt the grey zones, the descendants of our Aboriginal communities most heavily displaced by colonisation are now effectively rendered invisible, marginal and mute by the hegemony of the colonising state.

It is this sense of discriminatory abandonment that motivated a group of Brisbane-based Aboriginal artists, including Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd, Vernon Ah Kee, Fiona Foley, Bianca Beetson, Andrea Fisher and Tony Albert to create the collective ProppaNOW. Later the group included Gordon Hookey and Laurie Nilsen after Fiona Foley and Jenny Fraser left. Individually these artists had reached the limit of their tolerance and the collective became a strategy for cultural survival and a site for activating Indigenous agency. Their voices would now have amplification.

Andrea Fisher Window of Opportunity 2006, installation detail. Courtesy the artist.

Why here? Why NOW?

Weary of 200 years of being told how to behave properly (from the perspective of the colonising culture), ‘proppa’ refers effectively to the Aboriginal way of doing things. It references the Indigenous colloquial expression ‘proper way’; that is to do things with due regard to appropriate protocols and community respect.

Although proppaNOW was first conceived in 1997, the trigger to formalise the collective came in March 2004 soon after Queensland’s Premier, Peter Beattie, established QIAMEA (Queensland Indigenous Artists Marketing Export Agency) to promote and market Queensland Indigenous art. The artists were concerned that QIAMEA’s focus was initially directed towards the remote regions of Queensland such as Mornington Island, Aurukun and Lockhart River, thus reinforcing the cultural stereotype.[7]

Their past efforts as individuals to get government funding had invariably met with responses that indicated that they did not need the same degree of support as those from remote regions. Instead it was presumed that as educated city blacks they had better access to galleries, agents, studios and other sources of funding. As Jennifer Herd, artist, curator and ‘matriarch’ of the group says:

"I think urban artists are always put on the back burner so to speak. I’ve always felt that there are a number of urban artists, some of them from within our group, that have been overlooked, and deserve much more attention than they have received. You see some of these remote area artists ... get good representation, and a lot of attention…." [8]

In addition to the bias towards the authenticity of so-called traditional work, the remote north regions had a structural advantage. They had a collective identity. They were from named communities, often with distinct recognisable art styles, and they worked through government-funded art centres with access to a range of networks not available to any individual artist.

The formation of a collective such as proppaNOW was seen as a means of addressing this structural disadvantage and providing the collective voice necessary to give the artists more equal access in a way not afforded them as individuals. [9]

As artist and art critic Mark Alice Durant has famously commented, community-based art collectives ‘gives voice to the voiceless.’ [10] In this sense activist artists’ collectives such as proppaNOW actively claim space for marginalised and excluded peoples within the public spaces of mainstream cultural institutions.

According to their mission statement, the central premise of proppaNOW is to advocate and produce artists and exhibitions that question established notions of Aboriginal art and identity. Many of these artists are cultural activists reclaiming their space after decades of dispossession as Indigenous people. At the root is the issue of race discrimination presented through the lens of urban Aboriginal artists whose communities have borne the brunt of colonisation, displacement from ancestral lands and marginalisation by the dominant colonial culture. Their work forms a narrative which underlines the cultural alienation and displacement of Aboriginal people since invasion.

Jennifer Herd We Deeply Regret 2007, bamboo, pearls, organza, text on tracing paper. Courtesy the artist

The artists and the art

An exhibition in Canberra in 2007 introduced four of the artists to a wider audience. [11] Tony Albert’s 'Welcome to Australia' series, an Indigenous take on the foundational myths of Captain Cook and part of every Australian child’s primary education, parodies the story of Cook’s landing, the mythologised foundations of White Australia, by re-appropriating apparently neutral illustrations from a Bicentennial children’s book. Images which show Cook encountering a bemused group of Aboriginal people are de-neutralised by being meticulously coloured in by an Aboriginal artist and given back to the audience with the words (in the lower case cursive script of a school text book), 'Welcome to Australia'. In Albert’s primer, settler myths such as Terra Nullius and the peaceful invasion of Aboriginal Australia are exposed as cartoon accounts - fictional stories that serve to amuse children but cannot be taken seriously by intelligent adults. But as urban artist Gordon Bennett points out in his watercolours of 1991 (featuring alphabetical building blocks), this is where the building blocks of racism start, at school.

In Jennifer Herd’s delicately formed work 'Cruciform from Walls of Resistance', the narrative took a more sombre turn, analysing the aftermath of Cook’s Terra Nullius. The nine boxes installed in the form of a crucifix serve as a memorial to the death of Aboriginal people and culture. Like the crosses erected on roadsides after fatal accidents have occurred, they signify the site of a tragedy, playing out the fragility of Indigenous culture against the brutality of the invasion. She investigates the massacres of Aboriginal people and their consequences in the Cairns region of North Queensland, her ancestral country, with particular reference to the little known Irvinebank Massacre 1884, in far north Queensland. The pinhole drawings on cartridge paper refer to the rainforest shields punctured with bullet holes. As Christie Palmerston, an explorer at the time wrote:

"Their shields may answer very well for the purposes of their wars, but my rifle drilled through these as if they were sheets of paper." [12]

Framed in dark wooden boxes, like coffins, the shields, like the Aboriginal people they were meant to protect, are now boxed in, institutionalised, pigeon-holed, defined and confined. The work also recalls the culpable influence of Christianity in the attempted erasure of Aboriginal culture.

Herd comments:

"When something important is taken from you, you have to overcome the loss. Land Rights compensation does not do it … only getting your land back does … it give us back our self-respect. Our standing in the nation. Our standing in our own Land. I think about this every time I do my work. It is my way of asserting my sovereignty. My way of doing land rights." [13]

In Vernon Ah Kee’s work that chillingly spells 'You Deicide', his commentary on the impact Christian-based religions have had on Indigenous societies is evident through ‘deadly use of precisely sharpened language.’ [14] ‘Deicide’, meaning the murder of God, compels the viewer, once they discover it is not a spelling mistake, to become an accomplice in this act of cultural terrorism, pressured to take sides. There is no neutral position. In his ‘attempt to revision the Aborigine’ [15] as he describes his engagement with portraiture, he liberates his people from the process of colonising the Aboriginal body through visual misrepresentation. He takes back the control of the image of how Aboriginal people are seen. Images of the wretched, the romantic and the exotic are replaced with images of contemporary Aboriginal people.

Exploitation of the language of the coloniser is a tactical device used by the proppaNOW artists. Previously captive to anthropological discourse and unequal power relations they individually and collectively interrogate the histories that defined them as ‘other’ and ‘lesser’. They engage in self-liberating strategies through techniques of inversion, parody, irony and wit to strike at the heart of the guilty.

In Richard Bell’s works, words take a different turn. More akin to sloganeering and graffiti, they are delivered like blows to the gut belonging to a tradition associated with protest art and political activism. They are either slashed across the surface with a directness born of anger, embedded in flung paint or scrawled atop appropriated patterning from European modernists, at other times they are in a more subdued note-taking style. Emotion and intellect collude in his exploitation of sources ranging from Western art, political and legislative texts to history.

The issue of land rights is at the heart of Richard Bell’s work which forms the next chapter of the narrative. Bell’s ‘whitewashed’ painting 'If I don’t paint my story they will steal my land' also talks about continuing land theft and the erasure of history and culture. He articulates the Indigenous triangulation between land, story and art in a process of demonstrating the different nature of Indigenous ownership of land and inheritance through oral and visual transmission.

Bell explains the difficulties this poses for urban Aboriginal communities:

"The NTA [Native Title Act] specifically requires Aboriginal people to prove that Native Title exists (in the claimed area) by means of song, dance, storytelling, etc. … to prove that we are related to the birds, the animals, the insects, the microbes, the earths, the wind and fire. This is an extremely difficult task even for the Aboriginal people with minimal ‘White’ contact. Adding,The task for Urban Blacks becomes monumental and mostly impossible." [16]

The nature of this requirement is a double-edged sword. While on one hand in the exigencies of the Native Title Act there is a stated acknowledgement of Aboriginal ownership of land through story (oral history), yet on the other, demonstration of this ownership is barely possible as it depends on a degree of continuity denied by the world’s greatest landgrab. Inversely the discriminatory nature of the requirement to use story as evidence is exposed in a saying by an old Cherokee elder to a settler: ‘if this is your land where is your story’ (emphasis is the author’s). In other words, rules of ownership are not equally applied to the settler, thus exposing a profound ethical dilemma.

Vernon Ah Kee Race 2005 cut vinyl; Leonard 2006, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 177 x 240 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

In Jennifer Herd’s installation 'We deeply regret' a one metre long canoe is covered in a canopy of cloth stitched in running writing with the provocative words ‘We deeply regret’. Words that resonated deeply with our people at the time of the Howard Government’s refusal to say sorry for generations of human rights abuses. Her use of the ‘we’ is also intended to be ambiguous. It acknowledges that, as Australians, we are all in the same boat so to speak, on this issue and we too regret what happened. The canoe plies its way through history like a warrior messenger with a memory of injustice and misdeed as its troublesome cargo. As Herd states, ‘it becomes the carrier of what it means to be different and to be treated with indifference in your own land.’ [17]

Other words stitched on copy paper in similar style cascade from a tobacco tin above the canoe cataloguing the crimes against Aboriginal people. The quality of hand-stitched words on remnant cloth and paper in this style also recalls the pleaful ‘help us’ messages one might find in a bottle at sea or smuggled from prisons and other sites of confinement. They become personal messages from the heart – poignant and urgent.


Unable to wait for the nation to right the wrongs, the proppaNOW collective of artists, having breached the thresholds of tolerance, are applying the brakes to further extinguishment of their rights to the urban expression of their aboriginality.

Bell wrote:

"Urban Aboriginal Art … is the work of people descended from the original owners of the heavily populated areas of the continent. Through a brutal colonisation process much of the culture has disappeared. However, what has survived is important... The Dreamtime is the past, the present, the future. The urban artists are still telling dreamtime stories albeit contemporary ones. The Dreamings (of the favoured ‘real Aborigines’ from the least settled areas) actually pass deep into Urban territories. In short, the Dreamings cannot be complete without reciprocity between the supposed real Aboriginals of the North and supposed Unreal or inauthentic Aboriginals of the South." [18]

Acting as visual manifestos, their exhibitions and works become both political and cultural statements in the vein of protest art. They are also Dreamings for a new order.

At the most fundamental level, proppaNOW addresses what the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson articulated so succinctly at the National Reconciliation Convention in May 1997:

"If you take the land you take the ground of our culture…
If you take the children you take the future of our culture...
If you keep on taking there will be nothing left to take…"[19]

They are cultural terrorists of a new order. As a unit, they are highly trained, focused and on a mission. And they know where you live.

Richard Bell Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) 2003, synthetic polymer paint on canvas 240 x 240cm, Telstra Collection, Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Courtesy the artist


  1. ^ This is an abbreviated version of the essay by M. Neale & A. Edmundson in the catalogue to the exhibition Thresholds of Tolerance (see note 11).
  2. ^ Bell writes, ‘Aboriginal Art has become a product of the times. A commodity. The result of a concerted and sustained marketing strategy, albeit one that has been loose and uncoordinated. There is no Aboriginal Art Industry … The key players are not Aboriginal.’ Richard Bell, ‘Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art: It’s A White Thing’, Koori Web, November 2002. (http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/great/art/bell.html, accessed 21/1/2010).
  3. ^ Debra Jopson, ‘Whitefella Dreaming’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15/11/2003 (http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/14/1069027174339.html, accessed 21/1/2010.).
  4. ^ Wally Caruana, Aboriginal Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1993, p18. See also Howard Morphy, ‘Gaps in collections and spaces for exhibitions: reflections on the acceptance of Aboriginal "art" in Europe and Australia’, Art Monthly Australia Supplement – Aboriginal Art in the public Eye, No. 11, 1992.
  5. ^ See Marietta, The Bulletin 19 March 1996, p.82. Confirmed by AdrianNewstead, Director, Lawson Menzies Art Auctioneers, personal communication with Margo Neale, March 2007.
  6. ^ According to the 2001 census, Australia’s Indigenous population was 460,140, or 2.4% of the total population. Australian Bureau of Statistics Website (http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/ProductsbyCatalogue/14E7A4A075D53A6CCA2569450007E46C?OpenDocument, accessed 25/3/07).
  7. ^ Much of the early efforts of the collective were directed at canvassing QIAMEA for increased government recognition and support of urban Indigenous artists.
  8. ^ Jennifer Herd, interview with Margo Neale, Toowong, Qld, 3/1/2005.
  9. ^ Collectivisation (coming together to form long term, resource-sharing, mutually beneficial groups) is a particularly useful strategy for artists coming from communities who are historically poor, voiceless, marginalised and lacking access to resources and representation enjoyed by the mainstream.
  10. ^ Mark Alice Durant, ‘Activist Art in the Shadow of Rebellion’, Art in America, No. 80, July 1992.
  11. ^ Thresholds of Tolerance, ANU School of Art Gallery, Canberra, May-June 2007 curated by Caroline Turner and David Williams.
  12. ^ Henry Reynolds, The other side of the frontier: Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld.
  13. ^ Jennifer Herd, interview with Margo Neale, Toowong, Qld, 3 /1/2005.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ Vernon Ah Kee on AWAYE ! Radio National, 17/2/2007.
  16. ^ Koori Web see note 2.
  17. ^ Jennifer Herd, phone interview with Margo Neale, 2 /4/2007.
  18. ^ Richard Bell ibid.
  19. ^ Mick Dodson, Speech at the launch of the National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families at the Australian Reconciliation Convention, Melbourne, 26/5/1997.

Margo Neale is senior Indigenous curator and advisor to the Director at the National Museum of Australia and an Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University. She is of Aboriginal and Irish descent, from the Kulin nation with Wiradjuri and Gumbayngirr clan connections.