Episode 6: Aboriginal Art: Is It A White Thing?

Artist Richard Bell on the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, May 2018

In 2003, Brisbane artist Richard Bell controversially declared: ‘Aboriginal art – it’s a white thing’. His essay, which became known as Bell’s Theorem, lambasted the anthropologists, art historians, dealers and curators, invariably white, who presumed to judge and evaluate Aboriginal art. Bell also decried the positioning of art from remote communities as somehow more ‘authentic’ than urban Aboriginal artists such as himself. “Most of my culture was ripped from me in the process of colonisation – I’m not going to make any apologies for that!’, he says.  In 2003 Bell’s associated artwork, Scienta E Metaphysica, won the prestigious Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Since then, he’s become an internationally renowned artist, his work held at London’s Tate Modern, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and exhibited at numerous Biennales.

But Richard Bell’s success has not come easily. Born in a tent, he lived on the fringes for decades. When Brisbane gallerist Josh Milani met him, he was destitute – but determined to make a living as an artist. This episode charts Bell’s extraordinary life and the deep bond between him and Milani, whose  Milani Gallery has become a leading outlet for contemporary Australian art. It also examines how Bell became a founding member of proppaNOW, an Indigenous artists’ collective that produces provocative contemporary ‘liberation art’.

When overseas, Bell can escape from racism. ‘I can pass for Italian or Greek’.  But at home, he is treated ‘like a prisoner’. He may be part of the elite art world now, but that doesn’t mean he has compromised his values. ‘We’ve positioned ourselves inside the tent… but that doesn’t stop us from getting outside and pissing ON the tent!’

Listen to Episode 6