Profile: Richard Bell

Wer ist hier der Störenfried?’, ART – Das Kunstmagazin, June 2022

Melbourne, 2013. A stereotypically Australian scene has been transposed from the suburban backyard to an art museum. On manicured AstroTurf, two empty deckchairs recline beneath a shady umbrella, an esky (presumably keeping the beer frosty) within arms’ reach. Gallery lighting spares the chintzy plastic no mercy.

Hand-painted signage designating this mass-produced assemblage the Aboriginal Embassy looks, in comparison, achingly human, as do the placards declaring WHICH DO YOU CHOOSE?? LAND RIGHTS OR BLOODSHED! and WHY PAY TO USE OUR OWN LAND.

Richard Bell’s model of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, an ongoing protest first pitched outside Australian Parliament House in 1972, was the prototype for Embassy (2013–), one of the artist’s best-known works. Embassy now takes place in a military tent, but retains the original’s ethos. For each showing, Bell curates talks with marginalised artists, activists and thinkers, which aim to facilitate “difficult conversations in a public area”.

When the 2013 exhibition was launched by Bell’s old friend and collaborator Professor Gary Foley (himself a key figure in the protest movement), Foley ordained Bell “the black man from hell”, whose politically charged work “terrorises the minds of the mediocre”. Foley described Bell as a fellow historian, whose artworks are “inspired by an era in Aboriginal history when Aboriginal people stood up and said, ‘No, we won’t take this anymore.'”

Embassy can partially be read as memorial. Bell stakes a claim for the protesters’ artistry (many of whom were also theatre-makers), and for the real-life embassy’s enduring necessity. Yet in its nascent form Bell simultaneously destabilised earnest interpretations with his puckish wit, including signifiers of idleness that summoned racist typecasts: the drunk, the layabout. Each time this landmark protest is recreated in the white cube, Bell also infers that here, too, the Aboriginal artist is an alien, never naturalised into the art institution.

Embassy has toured as far as Moscow, New York, Jakarta and Jerusalem, before being co-acquired by the Tate and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017. Celebrating the protest’s 50th anniversary, Embassy will next appear at documenta 15 – alongside Bell’s new paintings and sculptural works – before moving to London in 2023, where Bell will become the first Australian exhibited in Turbine Hall.

Bell smirks when I ask if international audiences interpret Embassy differently to those at home. “Well, I’ll share something with you,” he says, leaning in conspiratorially. “What happened in this country is not unknown around the world… They’re very familiar with colonisation.”

The full article can be read in the documenta 15 edition of ART – Das Kunstmagazin, translated into German by Nikolaus G. Schneider.