Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006
acrylic and gravel on canvas, ink on polypropelene, satin laminated
The work of Richard Bell tackles the position of Aboriginal art and artists within the contemporary art world, directly criticising its appropriation by non-Aboriginal artists and its domination by white curators, critics, academics, dealers and collectors. Combining political bite and caustic humour, Bell’s works argue for greater Aboriginal control over Aboriginal art, and by extension, Aboriginal culture within Australian society.
The use of language and text is a regular strategy for artists addressing political ideas in their work, and one that Bell embraces. Bell’s four-panel work Worth Exploring? challenges the position of Aboriginal art and artists inside the art system, linking it to the historical legal status of European colonisation. With his trademark directness and humour, Bell uses a combination of painting and legal documents to raise complex questions of artistic authenticity, appropriation and reception, as part of a broad debate on Australian race relations.
Worth Exploring? features two documents that use European legal language and logic against itself: a statutory declaration challenging the legitimacy and legality of European colonisation, and a certificate of authenticity document, common practice in the Aboriginal art market, which Bell connects to forms of racial classification. Combining these texts with Bell’s own appropriation of other artists’ paintings, Worth Exploring? poses a provocative, complex and humorous challenge to our preconceived ideas of Aboriginal art, as well as addressing contemporary debates surrounding identity, place and politics.
Aboriginal Art is bought, sold and promoted from within the system, that is, Western Art consigns it to “Pigeon-holing” within that system. Why can’t an Art movement arise and be separate from but equal to Western Art – within its own aesthetic, its own voices, its own infrastructure, etc?
Russell Storer (curator), MCA Collection: New Acquisitions 2006 (exhibition catalogue and texts) Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2006;
Russell Storer (curator), Statement of significance, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2006
Quotation: Richard Bell, Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing!, 2002
Why can’t an Art movement arise and be separate from but equal to Western Art – within its own aesthetic, its own voices, its own infrastructure, etc?
Richard Bell, 2002