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Richard Bell

Worth Exploring?  2002

acrylic and gravel on canvas, ink on polypropelene, satin laminated

4 panels, dimensions various

Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006


About the Artwork

The four panels of Richard Bell’s work Worth Exploring? challenge the position of Aboriginal art and artists inside the western art system, linking it to the historical legal status of European colonisation. With his trademark directness and humour, Bell uses a combination of paintings and legal documents to raise complex questions about 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, a common document used in the Aboriginal art market that Bell connects to forms of racial classification. These texts flank two paintings, each with their own conflicted relation to Aboriginal art. The large painted ‘E’ sets up a dialogue with two other paintings: the monumental letters ‘I AM’ of Colin McCahon’s Victory Over Death (1970) and the ‘E’ shapes used by Michael Jagamara Nelson in his paintings to indicate possum tracks. Nelson’s work was controversially appropriated by Imants Tillers in 1985. In 2001 the two artists collaborated on the work Nature Speaks: Y (Possum Dreaming) that features the ‘E’ shapes, and which Bell has here appropriated again. The second painting in Worth Exploring? is an abstract expressionist work in the style of Jackson Pollock. It refers to Bell’s demand that if Aboriginal art is to be incorporated into a western art aesthetic, it should be ‘seen for what it is – as being amongst the world’s best examples of abstract expressionism.’[1]

In Worth Exploring? Bell criticises the appropriation of Aboriginal art by non-Aboriginal artists and its domination by white curators, critics, academics, dealers and collectors. Combining political bite and caustic humour, Bell argues for greater Aboriginal control over Aboriginal art and, by extension, over Aboriginal culture within Australian society.

[1] Richard Bell, Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing!, 2002.

I have to believe that art can make a difference, I have to believe that it can lead to political change … there will be lots of kids studying this work down here … I want it to be seen by lots of young people and I am sure it will affect them and the way they see aboriginal people … I hope.

Richard Bell, 2006

Richard Bell

– About the artist

Born 1953, Charleville, Queensland. Kamilaroi people. Lives and works in Brisbane.

Richard Bell is a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities. An activist as much as an artist, Bell works across video, painting, installation and text to pose provocative, complex and humorous challenges to our preconceived ideas of Aboriginal art, as well as addressing contemporary debates surrounding identity, place and politics. 

Selected group exhibitions include See You at the Barricades, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2015); Action at a Distance: The Life and Legacy of John Stewart Bell, Naughton Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland (2014); and My Country, I Still Call Australia Home, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (2013).

Solo exhibitions include Richard Bell: Imagining Victory, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo (2015); Embassy, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth (2014); and Imagining Victory, Artspace, Sydney (2013). Uz vs Them, a major touring exhibition of Bell’s work organised by the American Federation of the Arts, premiered at Tufts University, Boston in September 2011 and toured to venues across North America throughout 2013. The exhibition was accompanied by a new publication on Bell’s work. In 2009 an exhibition of Bell’s practice to date, titled I am not sorry, was held at Location One, New York, and Bell was the recipient of Location One’s International Fellowship for that year. In 2006 his work was the subject of the survey exhibition Positivity presented by the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Selected group exhibitions include the Asian Art Biennial, Taiwan (2013); Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2013); Half-Light: Portraits from Black Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2008); Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2007); Biennale of Sydney (2008 and 1992); Aratjara: Art of the First Australians (1993); Australian Perspecta, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (1993); and Unfamiliar Territory, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide (1991).

Bell’s work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and state and regional galleries in Australia.

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