How can one describe Richard Bell? An artist. An activist. An agitator.
“Gangster as fuck,” says Eualayai Gamilaraay filmmaker Larissa Behrendt, the storyteller behind You Can Go Now – a scorching documentary ostensibly about the activism of the internationally-recognised artist, told through archival footage of the ongoing struggle for First Nations people, particularly land rights, over the course of the last fifty years.
I sat down with Richard Bell to discuss the film, his art, and his activism.
EF: Can you describe your approach to artmaking? Do you generally start with an idea, or is it more material practice-oriented?
RB: It’s a mixture of all of those – idea, concept, issue, material and/or processes – and a lot of the time it’s multiple at once. For example, materially, I like exploring lines in my paintings, specifically the gap between the lines. On the other hand, sometimes I go into my studio with an idea or concept. This is my most used approach. I imagine a rough visualisation of what I want to do and then work directly onto the canvas.
EF: How has your process changed over time?
RB: I have refined my process. Ten to fifteen years ago, I used to draw the great ugly grid lines across the canvas to put text and graphics into my paintings. Now I use a projector, which makes the process easier and more efficient.
Behrendt’s method of storytelling explores the timeline of Indigenous activism in Australia through the works of Richard Bell. Blending archival footage with talking-head interviews of Bell’s closest friends and colleagues, Behrendt traces a songline through the history of Indigenous protest — from the Tent Embassy to the Black Lives Matter movement. If the film does diverge from Bell’s life at times, it’s only because Bell’s story is so intrinsically woven into the fabric of First Nations activism in the late 20th century.
Behrendt and Bell guide the audience through the unjust administration of missions and town camps, as Bell recounts seeing his home demolished by the government shortly after the 1967 referendum. They explore the role of Redfern and Chippendale as lightning rod places for displaced rural Indigenous people, and the relentless work of early Aboriginal activists in creating self-sustaining sovereign communities within the dominant settler-state.
EF: This film documents your life and career over the last thirty years. Over those thirty years, your work has remained overtly political; activism runs throughout it. Do you find that you’re talking about the same issues, or has it changed with time?
RB: Of course I’m talking about the same things! I’m talking about colonisation here; it’s something ever-present. And the resolutions to our problems are not overnight fixes. They’re things that have to be worked on for long periods of time – generations, in fact. I’ve got no sense of urgency with our movement, and I don’t think we’ve moved very far in my time. But then, I think that’s a result of global circumstances leaning towards fascism around the world. That hasn’t missed us here. These are not ideal times for us; instead, we should be trying to develop strategies and take stock of where we’re at.
EF: I’ve been curious about the title of the film. I know it comes from your 2017 work Immigration Policy, but how did you land on that message; ‘you can go now’?
RB: It’s a saying of mine. When somebody announces that they’re going, as they start to get away I’ll call their name, and they’ll turn around, and I’ll say, ‘you can go now.’
EF: Do you think it’s possible to read more deeply into that message?
RB: That’s not my problem [laughs]. My job was to make the work and give a title to the work that challenges the legality and the legitimacy of the colonial government that we have here. I believe that this land always was, and always will be Aboriginal land. Now, if people don’t like that, well, there’s an invitation in that title.
Bell talks in the film about his experience as a displaced Indigenous person from rural Queensland, settling in 70s Redfern and falling into the Aboriginal rights movement.
EF: How did you find your calling in art? Why was visual expression so important for your role in the Aboriginal rights movement?
RB: I found out that I could say just about whatever the fuck I wanted to in art – and not get arrested [laughs].
EF: How did you get started with artmaking?
RB: I had a very different art education to most people; I found people that I thought knew about art and I interrogated them – very often in league with beers and barbecues and that sort of thing – and, from what I saw of it, all the discourses were around white people and started by white men. Now, I didn’t want to participate in any of that, so I wrote my own fuckin’ discourse [laughs]. I wrote an essay that I called Bell’s Theorem [laughs]. It essentially allowed me to position myself in contemporary art.
Legendary activist Gary Foley described Bell as “one of the most provocative and uncompromisingly brilliant of today’s crop of contemporary indigenous artists”. In 2003, Bell published a blistering essay titled Bell’s Theorem, dissecting the problematic and harmful way in which the Aboriginal art market had been hijacked by Western art dealers.
EF: Bell’s Theorem has become a bit of a touchstone for contemporary First Nations artists. Can you tell me more about how you came to develop it?
RB: I did a bit of research and, as far as I could see, Aboriginal art was outselling Australian art by a massive margin. It was five-to-ten times bigger than the Australian art market in measurable terms, and there’s just no contest in cultural terms. The first thing visiting tourists want to see in art museums in Australia is Aboriginal art, because they’ve seen examples of colonial art in other European countries already. Basically, Australian art doesn’t exist outside of the minds of Australians and I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll put that statement out there.”
EF: Your art strikes me as more of a commentary on the politics and social issues of the time, and a way to influence decisions and people’s perceptions. Is that something you’ve found during your career?
RB: I believe that, yes. Why else would I do it?
Bell has been a luminary presence in denouncing and deconstructing white dominance of the Aboriginal art industry. One of his works carries the words Aboriginal art – it’s a white thing. And yet, here he is – suspended between the Black and white world, hurling bolts of paint in both directions as he ascends the international pantheon of Aboriginal artists.
EF: Where do you see your work within the broader art world?
RB: My art sits at, or near, the top of Australian and world art [laughs]. No, seriously, I don’t see myself as part of Western art. How my work fits into the West’s construct of art and beauty isn’t my problem. I just do what I do. It’s up to the collectors and the curators – they choose where your work sits in the art world. I’m more interested in igniting interesting conversations between artists and audiences.
In the film, Bell rails against Western classifications of art. In Bell’s view, Aboriginal art transcends Eurocentric notions of art styles and periods.
EF: Some works of yours, like Prelude to a Trial, have been described as “postmodernist”. Do you agree with the classification of your work through Western notions of art and art styles?
RB: No, I would not call my work postmodern. I’ve moved past that nonsense; I’ve moved past postmodernism and the Western classification system. I was always interested in the dynamics and discussions between artists and about what’s happening now.
EF: Postmodernist theory includes irony, parody, appropriation and intertextuality? Don’t your works interact with those ideas quite intimately?
RB: Sure, we were all informed by postmodernism theory; but I just didn’t buy into it. There’s always a new theory every three-to-four decades. That’s the cyclical nature of what is popular, from model making to photography to digital art.
EF: How would you personally classify your work?
RB: It’s really, really good in a Zoolander kind of way. Really, really good-looking paintings. My work is classified as painting and installation – the tent, video and signs. The audience fulfils and completes the installation or the artwork by interpreting it or giving it meaning. That’s what I’m talking about with those conversations between artist and audience.
Bell inhabits Behrendt’s film like a ringmaster, explaining himself with elaborate flourishes, slogans, and pointed questions for his audience. It’s clearly Bell’s version of himself, with Behrendt sharpening and facilitating; in fact, Behrendt addresses this herself. Even so, this is a powerful piece of work, reflecting all the anger, recrimination, and hurt that is displayed in his art. Bell is a provocateur, a poet, a piss-taker, maybe even a prophet.
EF: I think what makes your work unique is the fact that it is very direct. Your messages are clear and there’s no room for confusion from your audience.
RB: There are enough people out there making subtle works. My art has always been quite direct. That reflects me as a person as well. There’s an authenticity to it; what you see is what you get.
Protest is in Bell’s DNA, having spent his childhood in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland and receiving an activist education in the Redfern and Chippendale communities.
EF: In a lot of ways, your art is inseparable from your activism. How do you see the relationship between creative expression and political expression?
RB: I see myself as an artist masquerading as an activist [laughs]. Beyond that, I’ve never spoken at a rally or protest – I think there are other people who are much better at that than I am. I’ve always been happy to defer to those people.
EF: What was it like to be around those leading activists at that time?
RB: They were activists y’know, they didn’t sit back waitin’ around. They ended up giving me a job in the Aboriginal Legal Service. They taught us about Aboriginal history; they taught us about the law; public speaking; bail applications – all those experiences for people within the Aboriginal rights movement (…) formed the basis for my art practice.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, Bell has become increasingly involved in broader activism. Bell speaks at length in the film about his friendship with graphic artist and former Black Panther Emory Douglas.
EF: How has broader activism evolved over the course of your career?
RB: Admittedly there is a lot less activism these days. That’s for young people to sort out – you get out on the streets and challenge things. I’ll join you as often as I can [laughs].
EF: The film shows some of your activism around the world – in the US and Italy particularly. How do you describe the experience of bringing Indigenous issues to the world stage?
RB: There’s a whole lot of conditioning happening around the world as we speak, and more so within Australia. I challenge some of that conditioning and offer alternatives. Challenging some of the things that are presented as fact. A lot of it is fake news.
EF: Are people surprised by Australia’s treatment of First Nations people?
RB: People generally have a mature understanding of Indigenous issues. When I go to the United States, there’s a similar dynamic with Native Americans and the Black community. The specifics are different, but Indigenous people are oppressed the world over.
EF: What are some activist causes you’re working on right now?
RB: It borders on treason for politicians to wilfully take us down this path of continued carbon-based fuels, with no money whatsoever for renewable energy. That is actually treason, I believe; that is a treasonous act. We had a Prime Minister who actually brought a lump of fucking coal into Parliament House, like what the fuck was that? There needs to be a reckoning. There’s a question about renewables or carbon, for example. Let the people vote. Let there be discussions about it and make sure that people are informed.
EF: Is it government change or system change that’s going to fix this?
RB: Rather than changing the politicians, we need to actually change the system that we have. We need a reset. One of the projects I’ve been working on is a draft constitution for a new republic. We take some of these decisions out of their [politicians] hands; put them back into the hands of the people. We, the Aboriginal people, in order to seek justice, are referred to as a structure, which is built and populated by the coloniser. How the fuck can there be any justice in that kind of conflict resolution?
EF: Thank you for yarning up with me.
RB: Thanks for taking the time. You can go now.
You Can Go Now cannot be considered safe viewing by any means. It deals with the darkest parts of Australia’s history — it tears at who we are. However, it is necessary viewing. Behrendt confronts Australians with the consequences of their treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is not a film for delicate constitutions, but for those who are ready and willing to see the kind of reckoning Bell advocates for in his work.
So, what are you waiting for? You can go now.