Richard Bell Confronts the Plight of the Aboriginal through Art-Activism

Richard Bell confronts the plight of the Aboriginal through his assertive, hard-to-ignore paintings and installations. Bell’s work is deeply rooted in his experiences growing up Aboriginal in Queensland, Australia. Bell describes his work as “big, bold, and brash”, encompassing a universal theme of adversity. The Australian Government issued a formal apology to their country’s native people and its Stolen Generation. Until 1967, the Aboriginal population was considered “floral and fauna” on the Australian census, and children of Aboriginal decent were moved into white homes in hopes to assimilate the children into the European-influenced society stemming from Australia’s colonization. Bell discusses the continuing discrimination of Aborigines through Australian media and the difficulties of instigating social change after decades of accepted oppression. However, as Bell puts it, “The world changes one person at a time. And I’m aboriginal, I know how to wait.”

I was given the opportunity to sit down with the artist during his visit at Indiana University. This interview explores America’s reaction to Richard Bell’s Uz vs. Them as it wraps up its U.S. tour, as well as examines the university’s role in the artist-activist’s fight against human injustices.

Chloe sits down with Richard Bell
Chloe sits down with Richard Bell

Chloe Bohlander: Uz Vs. Them has toured the country since 2011, reaching audiences across four states in the U.S. How has exhibiting in university museums and galleries given a voice to your activism?

Richard Bell: Well ‘cuz its on the walls [laughs], the universities’ been getting me to come here and talk about them, about the show, about the paintings, the videos, what the rationale is behind the practice and all that stuff.

CB: This is the fourth university campus Uz vs. Them has made an appearance. What was the motivation behind exhibiting solely in an academic setting?

RB: I haven’t had any input into that that was the American Federation of Arts.

CB: You’ve been using visual arts to advocate Aboriginal injustice since 1989. Over the past 23 years, what progress or social change can be seen surrounding Aboriginal rights? Have other artists emerged over the years with similar goals?

RB: Well that’s two questions [laughs]

 CB: I know, I snuck one in on you.

RB: There has been change, unfortunately it’s for the worst, you know like uh, one of the biggest problems for aboriginal people has been our treatment in the mainstream media, particularly back home. So that’s gone backwards but we’re not alone there, that seems to be the case globally. There are plenty of other artists coming through dealing with similar issues.

CB: Do you think they get as much attention as you internationally? Or, in the States?

RB: They will be. Like Vernon Ah Kee, he’s about to exhibit a show in New York next month. He’s also in the first Indigenous Quinquennial [exhibiting at the] National Gallery of Canada. So you know there’s plenty more back home who take a different approach to what I do, but it’s pretty much the same sort of stuff.

CB: Has exhibiting in multiple countries shifted focus from Aboriginal rights to more of a universal message about the treatment of indigenous people?

RB: It’s probably expanded to include not only indigenous people, but the disadvantaged everywhere, including women. I think the message has become sort of globalized; the application fits very well into all these other areas.

“So you look and people should be able to recognize you the artist or they should be able to recognize you the writer in your work. There’s a requirement to come to know yourself. That’s part of this journey all young people set out on.”

CB: It’s no secret that Indiana, as well as Midwest America as a whole, is fundamentally conservative in policy and tradition.  Knowing this, what can students 18-21 years old from Indiana expect to take away from your work?

RB: I would like to think that it’s empowering, in at least some small regard. Given the latest tour [at IU], seeing part of this minority getting shafted [laughs]. Like, I’d like them to take away the fact that it pays to be honest with your self. And if you are that’ll show out in your work. I believe that my work is a reflection of myself. Basically you look at my work you can see me. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s brash, it’s colorful [laughs]. So you look and people should be able to recognize you the artist or they should be able to recognize you the writer in your work. There’s a requirement to come to know yourself. That’s part of this journey all young people set out on.

CB: Have you been able to interact with a lot of students here?

RB: Yeah I have. A lot of my talks, more than half are Q. and Answer. I like to be able to interact with them in issues in interest to them. It’s very difficult for me to come from Australia to Midwest America and be able to tune into what the zeitgeist is here, in regard to subject matter, that sort of thing. I’m a good communicator, so I like to play to my strengths as well.

CB: What are some ways in which you hope to expand your audience, outside of the world of academia and visual arts?

RB: Well, I’m interested in putting art on walls, you know like big walls and billboards and things like that. I really like what the graffiti artists do in that they claim public space.

CB: Have you done anything like that?

RB: Well I have some of these paintings, I reckon there’s a couple of walls here I could do. Might make some of these buildings look half decent [laughs]

CB: [laughs] Yeah, they’re pretty grey.

RB: [laughs]

CB: Any other thoughts about expansion of audience?

RB: Yeah. Well damn, I’ve got a TV show back home.

CB: Really?

RB: I’m hosting an art show where I introduce eight indigenous artists.

CB: That’s a really good medium in order to get your work out there. What’s it called?

RB: Ah, “Colour Theory”.

CB: What were your feelings of Uz vs. Them going into the first exhibit at Tufts University, and how have they evolved over time and during your visit here at Indiana University?

Bell gives gallery tour during his visit at Indiana University
Bell gives gallery tour during his visit at Indiana University

RB: Well it’s always interesting going into a new place. I was really impressed with the professionalism shown by the museum staff, and that the kids were really interested. That’s what’s really struck me, the level of interest. And like how easily they understood it, I didn’t have to prepare a context for them, they managed to frame the show, they got it any way.

CB: I think it’s what you said, that sort of message can translate well.

RB: Yeah it does translate well. I wasn’t worried about that aspect of the whole thing, once I do it and it goes out of my studio, I don’t care [laughs]. They can hang it upside down that doesn’t reflect badly on me at all. It’s interesting to come to the museums and see all these different manifestations, the different shapes of the museums, how they hang it, how they place the works.

CB: Did you get to visit every exhibition [of Uz vs. Them]?

RB: Yes

CB: As a society, continuous exposure to an idea can lead to collective apathy, regardless of the level of controversy. As your popularity within the art world continues to increase globally, do you find it difficult to measure audience impact of your work and its ability to instigate social change?

RB: Well I’d challenge your first assumption right from the start. Would you care to read it out again for me?

CB: Yeah, I would love to. As a society, continuous exposure to an idea can lead to collective apathy, regardless of the level of controversy.

RB: It can do that, but it can also embed. Have long-term responses. And that’s generally the case for these things. You basically have to plant the seeds, and then wait for them to grow. That’s what I’m doing, I’m planting the seeds. I don’t see any futility whatsoever there; I don’t see any negativity.

CB: Yeah, I guess I didn’t exactly mean it in a negative way, like you said when I asked you how the situation has been in Australia, you said it hasn’t really been improving either.

RB: No, that was with regards to the media. Yeah, there has been legislation passed in Australia that’s made things worse for some aboriginal people, so that’s of a concern to all of us. We share that pain with the people who are the victims of that legislation. Now what’s the second part of that question?

CB: As your popularity within the art world continues to increase, do you find it difficult to measure audience impact of your work and its ability to instigate social change?

RB: No I don’t, like I say my approach is one knowing that this is going to take time, it’s going to take collaboration from people who have engaged in my work and have had a chance to speak with me, or hear me talk. I’ve had great feedback from so many people here that has really given me lots of encouragement to continue. The world changes one person at a time. And I’m aboriginal, I know how to wait.

Katherine Paschal: So what’s next for you as an artist?

RB: What’s next? I’m coming back to America next month! [Laughs] I go home, I don’t quite recover from the jet lag, come back to America, then I’m going up to Canada for the quinquennial, then I’m going to Venice to make a film there, a short film called “Larry”.

“I’ve had great feedback from so many people here that has really given me lots of encouragement to continue. The world changes one person at a time. And I’m aboriginal, I know how to wait.”

CB: Who’s Larry?

RB: A Caucasian.

KP: We know that your show here, “Uz vs. Them”, addresses the Australian aboriginal experience. Is that one facet that you carry throughout all of your work, or is it just one part of who you are as an artist?

RB: I learned long ago that in order to advocate for aboriginal rights, I have to support the rights of other oppressed people. Like gay and gender issues, women’s rights, any minorities, I tend to be supportive of all those. I have to be, otherwise it’d reek of hypocrisy. I’m quite happy with that, I think my work translates pretty well to that. It speaks to those issues as well. Easily transferable, like I said before. What’s the other part of that question?

KP: When you’re producing and creating work, is that just one part of you as an artist? Or is an inherent part one of…

RB: No. Conceptually it’s all from my activism. The mechanics of producing the work, that’s when it gets arty. How to frame it, how to present it compositionally, those sorts of things. That all comes in at that stage. I don’t make art about art. It’s about real stuff. Not just people’s opinions.

Chloe Bohlander is the current marketing intern at the Indiana University Art Museum, under Manager of Communications and Public Relations Katherine Paschal. The quinquennial refers to the National Gallery of Canada’s upcoming exhibition, “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art”, on view through September 2, 2013.