Richard Bell has long been at the forefront of the political movement in urban Aboriginal art. Describing himself as a propagandist and a liberation artist, Bell has created and provoked debates about the realities of Aboriginal existence today. His 20-year career has included winning the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and being included in high-profile exhibitions such as the Bienniale of Sydney and Culture Warriors, the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia. More recently he held a joint exhibition with Emory Douglas, the Minister for Culture in the Black Panther movement. Importantly, Bell has been an integral part of the powerful art collective proppaNOW. In September 2009 he embarked on an international fellowship at Location One Gallery in New York, where acclaimed international curator Maura Reilly has also curated an exhibition of his work, titled “Richard Bell: I am not Sorry”. Bruce McLean talked to the artist in Brisbane before he left.
Bruce McLean__What role did you have in bringing the proppaNOW group together?
Richard Bell__Well, I made the discussion for the need for us to establish a group in the first place. I had been involved in the Campfire group before and things hadn’t changed in the 21st century. As urban Aboriginal people we were being looked at as inauthentic. Therefore our work was seen as inauthentic as well. We all felt the need to counter that prevailing thought, which is still there. Individually, we’ve each worked on the periphery, but having come together we’ve really challenged the status quo, and people are listening to what we’re saying now. Each of us has had a large measure of success because we got together as a group.
BM__In your own words, and your own work, what do you consider to be authentic?
RB__The ideas. I’m still stuck in the days of Black Power and the Black Power movement. I still believe in that ideology, so that finds its way into my work. How I render it and how I present the ideas, it don’t matter to me, it’s the ideas that count. That’s where the authenticity lies, in the strength and power of (the ideas).
All cultures borrow from the cultures around them; like there’s no way that we can be captured in a moment in time like the Francophiles would want us, and the other kings and queens of Ooga Booga. They would have us be the noble savage forever, trapped and captured in a moment in time. Damn, the noble savage is driving a fucking motorcar now. He’s got a mobile phone and he’s hunting with a rifle and a motorboat. Let’s get with the fucking program. We can adapt in that way and allow ourselves to wear Western clothes and that. We’ve gotta allow ourselves the room to move. We can’t keep ourselves trapped in these boxes by anthropologists, or any other fucking ‘ologist out there.
BM__Throughout your time with proppaNOW you’ve used different styles from your Pollock-inspired “Theorem” paintings to your Lichtenstein dot paintings and interiors. Is there a particular reason you have adopted these different styles?
RB__Oh, I get bored really quickly. I’ve got a short attention span and I don’t like doing the same shit time after time. I like to develop new looks in my painting. That’s basically it.
I originally started doing it because white people were appropriating Aboriginal art, so originally it was for revenge. But then I really admired the Lichtenstein works. I thought they were brilliant. I thought he was a genius. Taking these ideas and making them into what he did, it’s paying homage to him as well. But in the end I take ownership of them anyway – I fuck ‘em up and make them mine! There’s some people who see those animated works of mine and they see an original Roy Lichtenstein and they say “hey Richie, somebody’s doing a painting like you”.
I’ve always liked (the Lichtenstein cartoon-strip paintings) from the first time I saw them and I saw the potential there for putting my words in (the character’s) mouths. I liked his home decor scenes because in the early noughties I had a lot of people come up to me and say “we really love your work Richie, but it just won’t fit into our house” and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. So what I did was took the Lichtenstein interiors and where there were mirrors or paintings I put my works there. Then people were saying “they DO fit into our houses!” Then I could say “would you like to buy one?” That became a really good marketing strategy for me because it proved to people that my work was accessible.
BM__So, people see a barrier between themselves and your work. People often comment that they find your art angry.
RB__People feed off my work – the anger they experience is their anger at themselves, and their anger may extend from the fact that I refuse to forgive them. The works themselves, they’re not angry. I defy anybody to find a painting that’s angry. It might make people angry, it might appear angry, but I’ve put it there with the express purpose of it not being angry. The position that I come from is not angry – it may at worst be matter of fact.
BM__Can you tell me a little more about the Theorem paintings? I remember seeing the original “Bell’s Theorem” painting, the one before the Telstra version. How did they come about?
RB__Well that was the first of the Theorem paintings, the original Bell’s Theorem (and I still own it) is the most valuable work that I have, and I’ve managed to hold onto it. I’m going to do twenty of the theorems. I think I’m up to fourteen now, so there’s only six to go. When they’re finally in one room together they have to be with that original work, with the Bell’s Theorem text pinned to the wall. That’s how I showed it in the show with Imants Tillers at FireWorks Gallery.
That was a big show for me. It was pivotal. It was supposed to be a solo show but Michael (Eather) got cold feet and he decided to prop me up with some superstars – Michael Nelson Jagamarra, Imants Tillers and Emily Kngwarreye. I was in great company and it really inspired me to take a good look at what I’d been doing. And I didn’t really want to be in such a small group show with Imants at that time, especially considering the political situation. But I viewed it as an opportunity for me to challenge him in the art arena.
After I won Telstra with a large Theorem-style painting I refused to do it again until three years later. I refused to cash in on that win, which I could have done. I started doing them again three years later in the proppaNOW studio that we had in West End. I started six of them, and I could because the studio was so massive, and they created a real vibe in the place, they created a real excitement. Even the collectors were coming in saying “which ones can I have?”
That was really nice, and that three years time gave me a lot of time to develop different ideas, so I had six different ideas to go with. Now I probably make one every five or six months. I can finish them in two days, but it takes me bloody ages to construct them in my mind.
BM__Do you see yourself as someone with a large degree of authority within Aboriginal art?
RB__No. I wrote Bell’s Theorem which was a paper on the Aboriginal art industry – or the industry that caters for Aboriginal art. It came from discussion that I’d had with dozens of Blackfullas over twenty years. So, even though I wrote it, I don’t consider that I own it. I think that it belongs to Aboriginal people. Blackfullas can take whatever they want from it – they don’t have to ask for my permission. It’s ours. Writing Bell’s Theorem, the 4,800 word essay, was basically an excuse to be in this show with Tillers. I was trying to kiss Black ass. So authority? No!
BM__One of your works that always sticks in my head was a smaller work which said ‘I am not always right, but I am never wrong’. Do you do those humorous works for any particular reason?
RB__I do these whimsical works about me and my weaknesses – I just put them out there. It’s a pre-emptive strike. This one I have up here in the studio says “I am that shallow”. Well, on certain issues I am that shallow. When it comes to women I fall for the corporate stereotype all the time. I go for the underdog in a contest. It’s that sort of thing. People recognise something of themselves or someone they know in these things. That then allows me access to that person, which I may not have had before. I call myself a propagandist and that’s one of the tools of my propaganda. I know that self-deprecation is really empowering for other people, it allows other people the position of power.
I’ve been a Blackfulla for a long time and we get the piss taken out of us constantly and we’re not allowed to be “big noters” and everything. So what I do is very un-Aboriginal – being outspoken, being forthright – it’s very un-Aboriginal. It’s just because of my frustration at our culture, making it almost impossible for us to get ourselves out of the bind that we’re in.
BM__With the group gaining more attention, what do you see as your role in proppaNow, now and into the future?
I try to take a back seat as often as I can. I don’t want to be seen as having the group dominated by me. I sit back most of the time and just go with the flow. If I have some concerns, I’ll mention that – I’ll bring it up and let the members decide for us. The decision-making process in proppaNOW is by consensus. If someone disagrees completely, then that can’t be. We’ll move to another position and try to bring that person this way. There might be one person that convinces the rest as well. It takes a long time to reach decisions, but you reach decisions that you’re not going to kill anybody over.
(Aboriginal people) have to get back to decision-making by consensus. I think the way forward is through small groups. Our socio-political structure, through thousands of years of history, has always been through small family groups, and I think that’s the way forward for us. It might take us 200 years, but we’ve got some time. We’re Aboriginal people, we know how to wait. We’re better off waiting for the best possible result than taking some shit result right now. Fuck that, I’m not gonna sell off somebody else’s future for my betterment now.
BM__You have also been somewhat of a mentor to some of the younger members of the group.
RB__That was one of the reasons we set it up too, as a sort of trampoline for the younger members. When we started I probably did have the biggest profile among us. I think Vernon [Ah Kee] has probably gone past me now, and that’s a good thing. Gordon [Hookey] will shortly as well. Tony [Albert] has just got to focus now and listen to what the other members have got to say. Keep his head on his shoulders. That studio we had up there (Brereton Street), that was fucking amazing. The works that came out of there, people are gonna be writing about that shit.
BM__I also wanted to ask you about your t-shirts and your general public persona. How and why have you developed this?
RB__Being an artist you are often alone, sometimes in foreign places. If you wear a really cool t-shirt, you’ll get a conversation. I like conversation, so I wear them as conversation starters. That’s the first thing. It’s amazing when I get up in the morning and I reach for a clean shirt, or the cleanest dirty shirt, it's amazing how appropriate that shirt is on that day. Within hours I’ll be meeting somebody and it’ll have something to do with them. It’s like a persona now – Richard Bell and the T-shirt – and I play along.
BM__So it has become a character that you play on, like a Muhammad Ali, or in the same way that “Choc" does it?
RB__Oh, yes, definitely. You know, Anthony “The Man” Mundine, he’s a totally different person to Choc. I developed a character. In fact, I created a magnificent Black Hero, called Richie, and he shows off all around the place with all these t-shirts on and all this bling and this sort of stuff, acting outrageously. But that’s Richie, that’s not me, he’s a performer.
BM__And how do you view yourself in the context of Richie being the extroverted magnificent Black Hero?
RB__I’m a quiet, sort of studious nerd. I spend a lot of time alone, thinking. It’s really nerdy sort of shit. I spend most of my time playing with my ideas and that’s pretty boring to most people so ... yeah, Richard’s boring. Richie’s exciting ‘cos Richie likes to have fun.
BM__So who do you prefer being, Richard or Richie?
RB__Well, Richie’s tiring. I get bored with him. I don’t know … One thing I do know is that Richard and Richie both need a beer. You want one?
Wirri man Bruce McLean of the Birri Gubba nation is Associate Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.