All that swagger and not a sorry in sight

At the beginning of his video work The Dinner Party (2013), Richard Bell is friendly and chatty as he walks through the crowd of people who are eager to meet him. The first question that he is asked is “So, what is it Richard, activist or artist?”, Bell replies “You will just have to wait and find out”.

Richard Bell is often described as confronting. I believe it is because he does not behave in ways that make white people feel honoured or respected. Bell’s observations cut through the polite facades and, as an Aboriginal woman, viewing his work in a gallery is one of the few public spaces where I feel safe. In those moments I am not the target. I do not have to explain why I feel resistant to answering questions that are often rude or derogatory. I have often been asked to justify how Aboriginal I am, and questions such as these happen enough for me to know they are not random moments but are in fact a national issue, maybe even an  “emergency”. I do not know what it is like to be an Aboriginal man in this country but have found that there seems to be a popular belief that this is a voice that is probably uneducated, unsophisticated and/or angry.

The voice of Richard Bell is dismissed in a way that I have yet to see happen with people like Tony Abbott and John Howard who both appear to possess the traits above – yet they get to run the country. I have asked the men in my family how they deal with issues such as the justification for the Intervention in the Northern Territory. The response that struck me was “you just try to stay invisible because regardless you begin to feel the consequences of their fear and hate and then you never know what’s going to happen”. Guilty until proven innocent ... wait that’s the wrong way around. There then begins a cycle of complete disempowerment at every turn, “mud sticks no matter what happened”. Bell refuses to be invisible. To be clear, I have found him to be an incredibly insightful, thoughtful and sophisticated artist.

The white man is interested in the black man only to the extent that the black man is of use to him. The white man’s interest is to make money, to exploit.[1]

Bell’s The Dinner Party is a commentary on the white artworld and by extension white Australia that engages with the above insight expressed by Malcolm X. This work captures the disconnect often seen at openings of art exhibitions, where the travesty of white intelligentsia scoff and laugh with little to no awareness of the alienation between their privilege and the art that they judge through jaded lenses. In The Dinner Party white art critics and buyers are on display, and the results are not pretty. They are in fact skewered by the relentless eye of one who has stood through many such parties.

Next in the video the gathering which greeted Bell is draped around in front of him while he explains the process of making the painting on the wall “ass man” . The painting is purchased by one of the men present at the party, he seeks confirmation that he has done right to buy a “Richard Bell”. Unfortunately the artist does not ease the buyer’s anxieties and starts to talk about the work in a flippant manner. In the course of the conversation Bell mentions the Desert painters and not wanting to spend the “same amount of time to create dots so why not get a big brush and flick it on”. There is a mocking tone in Bell’s voice as though I, as the video viewer, am in on the joke with him. The use of dots within Bell’s painting in the context of this video, is similar to that in his work Little Johnny (2001) and makes reference to the optical Ishihara Colour Vision Test used for judging colourblindness. Ishihara can also be used as a term for the belief by the privileged that because they do not see it, there is no racism. The world is a meritocracy and what is it with all the whingeing from those who don’t get to eat cake?

With the “ass man”artwork on the wall acting as a mirror that cannot lie, the dinner begins and Bell leaves. While the conversation that ensures could be labelled as parody, it could equally be taken as word for word dictation of the remarks that I have heard on far too many occasions. It becomes apparent though that this dinner party exists in a future where things have changed. This is Bell's fantasy, where political activist Gary Foley is the Prime Minister of Australia and Abbot is nowhere in sight. The white people have found out they are about to lose their wealth, their status, their power. TV scenes of Foley in front of the Aboriginal flag broadcasting to the nation causes the racism at the dinner table to increase, fuelled by the shock of losing their entitlements. I find it difficult to watch, as the dinner party guests drink red wine and share their views on Aboriginal issues.

Richard Bell, The Dinner Party, 2013, video still. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. 

One of the young women sitting at the table suddenly decides she has had enough and lets the group know that she is Aboriginal and does not appreciate the conversation. She immediately becomes the target of common stereotypical reactions such as disbelief, “you don't look Aboriginal”, “you're too pretty to be Aboriginal” and she is forced to defend herself and all Aboriginal peoples. She is clearly expected to have all the answers. The dinner party guests are experts in quick judgements of how Aboriginal peoples will squander any monies or rightfully returned land without seeing or accepting Bell's fantasy, that the white people do not get to choose this now that Aboriginal victory is here.

I find what transpires next in the film is unresolved and does not work for me. The young Aboriginal woman is followed into the bathroom by one of the white men. He is sleaze personified as he says, “I love black velvet”. The young woman reaches for a large black dildo and replies, “how do you want it, with or without gel?” The camera pans back to the other dinner guests looking suprised and uncomfortable at the sounds of his groans coming loudly from the bathroom. This is a reference to how white males in Australia have historically treated Aboriginal women. Bell turns it around by having the young woman in the role of the sexually empowered. Here she decides the outcome. The image though of her engaging in any kind of sexual act with this man does not ring true for me. Also the point of the ‘ass man’ pun, re-centres the white man in a way that is anti-climactic. I'm really not sure what she gets out of it.

I often have mixed reactions to Richard Bell’s artwork. Watching racist jokes and racist comments by white people is never an easy thing to put yourself through and yet I feel empowered as an Aboriginal woman. Does this mean that in order to educate the other, and by that I mean white Australians, I must stand by and listen to these jokes, hoping that somebody gets it? What if I don't laugh?

Yet overall viewing The Dinner Party, the final in a trilogy of videos called Imagining Victory, is like a breath of fresh air. Bell’s repositioning of the repetitive conversations about race in Australia is an antidote. He is saying, “don't believe the lies” and is quite happy to tell it like he sees it. If this is confronting, then Australia needs more of it.

In order to talk about issues of living in a country that is racist towards Aboriginal peoples, Bell refuses to be the victim. He is often the hero in his narratives and controls the concepts and I know that I am watching an artist who is both strongly political and incredibly clever in owning all of the representations he presents.

The evident irony of the work is that The Dinner Party will be exhibited in the setting that it is consciously playing out. No doubt, art critics will in turn find it, “fascinating”, “overly literal” or “unsophisticated”. For me in many ways, it’s just life in this country.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Alex Haley, The Playboy Interview: Malcolm X, May, 1963.

Dianne Jones reviews Richard Bell's 'The Dinner Party' from her perspective as an Aboriginal woman. The third part of Bell's trilogy ‘Imagining Victory’, ‘The Dinner Party’ is a confronting satire of racism and white privilege in the art world and wider Australian society. 

Dianne Jones is an Australian photo-media artist whose work deals with indigenous identity and cultural history. Her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions in Australia and overseas, and is included in the collections of National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Monash University Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Australia.

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