Why You Paint Like That: Marshall Bell

Woolloongabba Art Gallery, Brisbane 26 March - 17 April 2010

Marshall Bell Rock Painting 2010, 183 x 152 cm, acrylic on canvas.

If you thought ProppaNow had the last word on urban indigenous politics see an entirely different perspective in the works of Richard Bell's younger brother Marshall. Marshall’s equally promising art career that began in the 1980s was set back for more than a decade by a sabbatical to conduct land rights campaigns. Only now has he managed to convincingly launch a broadside attack on the assumptions that Richard and his colleagues in the ProppaNow collective have so forcefully championed.

ProppaNow took a stand against what they term 'Oooga-Booga' - a whitefella construct of indigenous primitivism. This entailed not using imagery that was not 'proppa’ to one’s own family background and region such as the ubiquitous dots made famous by Central Desert painters or the crosshatching called 'rarrk' used by indigenous artists in the far north which were deemed improper for indigenous artists from the South-Eastern regions of Australia.

Marshall contends that in this stand they are wrong and that anxiety about using these motifs has paralysed many promising young artists in the South-East and has cost the economy of art in that region dearly. His challenge is exemplified in his work and backed up by a plausible argument. While the elements of his paintings are generic, each marking is meticulously researched and connected to South-East traditions. To confirm oral traditions passed down to him within his own family, Marshall collected reports of decorations on possum skin cloaks, and on other artefacts such as tree carvings, from diverse historical sources. Dots and crosshatching, he contends as a result of this research, were used widely in the South-East but were applied to more ephemeral and less museologically collectable items which, because the South-East was settled earlier by whites, largely disappeared before their iconography could be recorded and acknowledged by the white art industry.

What results from Marshall’s point of view is a remarkably catholic and inclusive philosophy of indigenous culture. Marshall identifies the similarities rather than differences between the various regions and emphasises the ownership of major symbolism by all Aborigines rather than only some. In this assertion he is joined by several staunch indigenous supporters such as filmmaker Marcus Waters, and young artists such as Mayrah Dreise and John Patten.

Pan-Aboriginality has its advantages and drawbacks. Beloved by governments because it makes negotiation and administration easier, it is steadfastly resisted by many indigenous groups. However, political action requires a collective identity and group solidarity if it is to make any impact on the powerful mainstream. Marshall does not argue that there is just one homogenous indigenous culture but that there is a similarity, and continuity, among the indigenous cultures of Australia that has been occluded and distorted by political and economic forces. This, he points out, has been particularly hurtful to those indigenous artists who are uncertain of their specific family origins and traditions or whose region suffered a lapse in the production of ceremonial art due to white intervention.

And although he asserts the importance of a common Aboriginal culture, Marshall, like his brother Richard, does not deal in nostalgia. He brings this imagery fully up to date. The forms he draws from tradition always resonate with their contemporary context. The glowing spiritual aura in his work comes not from ochre but from futuristic metallic colours; the dot pattern is also a computer punchcard, message stick notching resembles binary code, and the crosshatching is also a modernist grid. Bell’s grid, however, is not the Cartesian tool of land survey and conquest it has been for the whites, but the sacred division of Aboriginal life into moeties. Rather than descend into 'Ooga-booga' mysticism his works simply reinforce indigenous traditions regarding the obligations of people towards the land and all living things.

This visual debate, between the Bell brothers and their respective groups of colleagues, is the most exciting use to which art has been put in a long, long time.