From little things, big things grow: How the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (1972) inspired Richard Bell's Embassy (2013-ongoing)

Clothilde Bullen in conversation with Richard Bell, Ghillar Michael Anderson, Jenny Munro and Bronwyn Penrith

Richard Bell, You Can Go Now installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney. Photo: Anna Kučera. Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Australian Art © the artist. 

As part of Richard Bell: You Can Go Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia exhibition, curator Clothilde Bullen moderated the first Embassy conversation with Ghillar Michael Anderson, Richard Bell, Jenny Munro, and Bronwyn Penrith.

Ghillar is an activist with a long career of defending people’s rights. From 1969 he was a leader in the Black Power movement and was appointed as the first Aboriginal Ambassador to white Australia after establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Kamberri/Canberra with his comrades in 1972. Jenny is a Wiradjuri Elder and activist who has been at the forefront of the fight for Aboriginal housing at The Block on Gadigal land in Redfern, having started the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Bronwyn is a Wiradjuri activist who is currently Chairperson of Mudgin-Gal Aboriginal Women’s Corporation and co-founder of the Aboriginal Justice Group in Sydney.

In the following edited extract, the panellists reflect upon the significant historical moment that was the inception of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, their roles at that time and how Bell’s Embassy work continues to stimulate critical conversation, provocation and debate in relation to the sovereignty of First Nations people nationally and globally.

Clothilde__Richard’s Embassy is one way that we can continue to have the conversations that need to be had about important things. Important things for us as Aboriginal people but also important things that help non-Aboriginal people across Australia and the world to understand where we’re coming from. I’d like to start with the contextualisation of why we’re all here, why this all started, why Richard based his Embassy work on what happened in 1972. Ghillar, can you tell us a little bit about why the need for the Embassy was so important and what happened around that back in the day?

Ghillar__It was an accident. Billy ‘Big Ears’ McMahon [had] made an announcement that they would lease land back to blackfellas, that went down like a lead balloon, didn’t it? We all ended up in front of Parliament House in Sydney and protesting. There was Bobbi Sykes, Gary Foley, Paul Coe, Gary Williams and Norma Ingram—about 12 people. And then all of a sudden, we looked at each other and we said, wait a minute, ‘Billy don’t work here; Billy McMahon works in Canberra’. And so we all ended up back at Gary Williams and Norma Ingram’s house at George Street, and sat down planning to go to Canberra. And then we all looked at each other and said, ‘Who’s gonna go? You?’ We all shit ourselves.

So I said, ‘Alright, I’ll go’. My countryman, Don Royman said, ‘If you go, bro, I’ll go with you’. Tony Coorey said, ‘I’m not working, so may as well go too’. And then I looked at Foley and Gary Williams and it took me 40 years to find out why Gary Williams and Foley didn’t want to come. It was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 40th anniversary of the Tent Embassy. They said, ‘Well, we didn’t want to go down and be made asses of. Go down there and you got fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe get smashed by the coppers. You’re all over the place and you got smashed and that’s it’. [jokes] Well now Gary claiming he fucking started it. Yeah. Lying bastard, but anyway. [audience laughs]

And, of course we had some really solid people who were backing us and, you know, we wouldn’t have done it without each other. We were all young, we were bullet-proof, and we just didn’t give a shit. We knew we had a job to do and that was to represent our people, and we were gonna let them know that we were coming after them. And here we are, we’re still here. And it’ll be there for a while I think. It’s quite embarrassing because they keep looking at it and saying, it’s an eyesore. Of course it’s a bloody eyesore, they can’t deal with it. And they can’t deal with the truth. 

Clothilde__Jenny, what were the feelings around communities at that time when people started hearing about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy?

Jenny__Well, I think just the fact that it was set up started a groundswell of support in the black community. The news of the Embassy being established travelled like wildfire right across the country. In the first year there was a national call for the people to come to Canberra. And they came there from everywhere. Even during the national petrol strikes that same year, so that was the impact of the Embassy on black Australia I think. Every state was represented down there. I think we couldn’t really fathom it at the time but for me, the experience was life changing. Once the fire had been lit, there was no putting it out for black people and our Country. It articulated everything that we needed to be articulated to the government. Because we, as like today, we’re still being ignored politically. 

From the very beginning, and ‘72 was another example of that, they tried to control us with the threat of the police moving in on us. When we had the first big rally one of my memories is the police coming around the corner, marching. It was like the Gestapo. Images of the police attacking my brother, because he tried to save me from being attacked by the police.

Juno Gemes Illegal March, Land Rights Before Games, Brisbane, 1982. Photo: Juno Gemes Archives, Courtesy: Juno Gemes/Copyright Agency, 2021. 

Clothilde__Bronwyn, what was happening for you at that time?


Bronwyn__I don’t think of myself as a leader and don’t think any of us did then neither. When they went down to the Embassy I was actually back home in Brungle. I had just had a child and he was just a couple of months old at the time. I came across from Brungle to the Tent Embassy when everyone already went down there. People got involved, come from everywhere and no one paid anybody to go, nobody paid for their transport. They came by plane, train, hitchhiked. Some students got buses together, I think. I can’t remember. Some organisations supplied vehicles. People came because they believed, you know? Because they really believed.

So about nineteen years old, I didn’t think I was much of a leader for anybody. And because I had the pram I was mainly bringing up to the rear! Every night there were strategy meetings, about what they were going to do to keep people safe. But also people were fearless. I don’t believe anybody was saying I’m too scared to take this on. This is where unity comes from really. It’s where the idea of unity comes from. Comes out of the struggles of that Embassy. And now you all think the Embassy was important, and we look at what Richard’s done to keep this going. 

For me the really important thing was the unity of the people. Because they were seriously willing to die for one another. They were seriously willing to stand in front of the police or whatever came at them. There was always the fear of police and welfare when you got home from Canberra. So I’m just trying to draw a picture of the atmosphere of the times—it was a really very dangerous. And I don’t think we knew how it would unfold; I had no idea that we’d be sitting here today. The unity of people was just extraordinary. In a way I’d like to see it come back.

Clothilde__Yes. Here, here! That’s a lot of what’s missing at the moment. That is a nice segue way into talking about why you decided to create the Embassy work, Richie.

Richard__I was following Michael on Facebook, and he was saying some interesting stuff about sovereignty. And at the same time [2010–12] there was all these youngsters were setting up Aboriginal tent embassies all around the country, inspired by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. And it was a phenomenon. They got discussions going and they used some of Michael’s arguments to get sovereignty on the table. I was just gonna do it once, and I did it with a beach umbrella, with Gary Foley. It was in Melbourne—laid out a couple of banana chairs. And we had beers, you know, in an esky. 

We were just sitting back and presenting, you know, the stereotype of the ‘drunk blacks’. We were having quite the discussion but I thought—that’s just gonna be the end of it. But then we got invited to a whole host of places to bring this Embassy idea. I bought a tent and then I just got invited all around the place, all around the world. I think the third invite was from Moscow! And then I went to Jakarta and New York and Amsterdam and a whole heap of places around the world. Here in Australia it’s been to Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, Perth. So that’s pretty much how it sort of happened. I just invited people, mostly my friends actually, to come along and talk in these embassy situations about whatever they want. And we’ve had some amazing discussions over the years in these tents.

Clothilde__Your Embassy work is going to be at the Tate next year on the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. That’s an interesting contradiction in some ways. 

Richard__The heart of the settler colonial project going there and the brother [Ghillar], he had to come in, he tells me he loves London. 

Juno GemesIllegal March, Land Rights Before Games, North Queensland Land Council activists Mick Miller, Steve Mann, Clarrie Grogan, Brisbane Queensland, 1982. Photo: Juno Gemes Archives. Courtesy: Juno Gemes/Copyright Agency, 2021. 

Ghillar__I do.

Richard__Yeah so?

Ghillar__I’m trying to steal it.

Richard__You need a hand?

Clothilde Bullen is the Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, and the Chair of the National Association for Visual Arts Board.