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!’
When Judi Muller retired with a good pension, she decided to make ‘a personal act of reconciliation’ and sell Indigenous art on a small scale – the stuff that bypasses the big bucks. Mark Chapman has tailored his art supplies business to suit the desert conditions in which Indigenous artists work: his linen canvases are hand-primed with acrylic paint, which allows a better bond and creates a painting that is durable and transportable. Ruark Lewis is a multi-media artist who has been involved in an artistic ‘conversation’ with artists from other cultures including Barayuwa Munungurr, a Yolngu artist who paints his mother’s whale story. Their work shows a remarkable synergy and has been exhibited as far afield as Monaco.
Among the myriad folk who orbit remote Aboriginal art centres:
Jeremy Cloake is a New Zealander of Maori/Irish heritage. He’s also an expert on playing the yidaki, the Yolngu name for didgeridoo. He spends months every year at Yirrkala, working in the art centre in diverse roles.
Dallas Gold was a chef before he studied art. He’s met collectors who are ‘hooked on Aboriginal art’. As a dealer, he shares their passion, ‘pushing art’ to the outside world. His gallery, RAFT, showcases difference. In an update, Dallas tells us that the exhibition with Peter Adsett he refers to was not an actual RAFT event, but a precursor. The first RAFT exhibition (2001) was Four Men, Four Paintings, with Rusty Peters, Freddie Timms, Paddy Bedford & Ramey Ramsey. Details here.
Joseph Brady is a multi-media artist from Melbourne. Now he and his family live in the remote Aboriginal community at Yirrkala, where he is the program director at the Mulka Project, the museum and digital production part of the art centre. Joseph makes audio and visual recordings of Yolngu ceremonies, or Bungul, such as initiations and funerals. The recordings are archived to preserve culture, but they are also popular viewing with family members: “The drama and highlights of ceremony are well worth re-visiting… the same way you might re-watch a wedding video.”
The ‘mintji’ or traditional cross-hatching the Yolngu paint with ochres on barks, hollow logs and other artefacts is mesmerisingly beautiful. It also radiates power. It encodes sacred knowledge about the land and sea and documents the Yolngu’s connection to country over 60,000 years. Within three decades of the arrival of white colonists in 1935, the Yolngu had used their art for political gains. They revisited the tactic in the courts, winning crucial land and maritime rights.
In this episode, anthropologist Howard Morphy, who has lived among the Yolngu for over 40 years, and Will Stubbs, veteran manager of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre, trace the ways art, law and politics are inextricably linked.
Garawan Wanambi’s rosy-hued paintings are made with the ochre, or ‘gapan’ of the land itself – they channel his deep relationship to country. Gunybi Ganambarr, a co-caretaker of Yolngu country around Gangan, NT, uses found materials such as PVC piping as well as traditional media such as hollow logs to create diverse and beautiful art. Yinimala Gumana, ranger and artist, is the former chair of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre. These three artists take us to the site of a terrible massacre of their people in 1911 – and beyond it, to the art and heart of Yolngu culture today. Though it can cost around $600 to get a ‘bush taxi’ to convey their art to Yirrkala, they will not forgo living on country and upholding its rituals – an option derided as a ‘lifestyle choice’ by one former Australian prime minister.
Will Stubbs was a criminal lawyer from Sydney doing Aboriginal Legal Aid, when he ‘got sung by a Yolngu chick’ from Yirrkala, in North-East Arnhem Land. Their teenage daughter now negotiates the two worlds that, as manager of the Buku-Larrnggay art centre, Will has bridged for over twenty years. He sees himself as a ‘dung beetle’, who picks up the shimmering art the Yolngu ‘deposit’ as the detritus of the ceremonial and spiritual practice that infuses the pure art that is their life.
Luckily, it sells.
NEWSFLASH – this episode won a GOLD award at the New York Radio Festival 2019 in the Culture and Arts Category.