‘Enema of the state’: Aboriginal artist Richard Bell on his protest pieces heading to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall

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A tent festooned with protest placards by the Brisbane-based Indigenous artist Richard Bell will pop up at Tate Modern in London this May. Titled Embassy, the tent will host a programme of public discussions with leading figures of Black activism. Tate’s timing could hardly be more appropriate; Australians will vote later this year on whether to enshrine in the country’s constitution having an advisory body called an Indigenous Voice in its parliament.

Bell’s Embassy is based on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was erected in 1972 outside Canberra’s Old Parliament House by a group of four Aboriginal activists to protest against the government’s denial of land rights and the substandard living conditions of many Aborigines.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy swelled to accommodate large numbers of protestors and was the site of many bloody clashes with police. It continues to this day as a locus of activism and a proclamation of Indigenous sovereignty. The protest site was called the Aboriginal Tent Embassy because Australian Indigenous people felt like aliens in their own land, so they might as well have an embassy there like other nations.

Richard Bell’s Embassy on show in Venice in 2019 Photo: Caroline Gardam

Embassy was first show in Melbourne in 2013 has now been exhibited in New York, Moscow, Venice, Jerusalem, Jakarta and at Documenta in Kassel last year. It is currently stationed at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Its next stop will be the bridge in Tate Modern’s Turbine hall on 20 May (until 18 June).

“I’m going to be there for the duration,” Bell tells The Art Newspaper. Invited speakers are yet to be confirmed but are likely to include Michael Anderson, one of the original founders of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Speakers at other iterations of Embassy have included the artist Emory Douglas, who was minister of culture in the Black Panther Party, and Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum, a Cree nation woman who co-founded the global Indigenous movement, Idle No More.

Bell’s Pay the Rent II will also be shown at Tate. The work is a digital ticker tape display of what the artist calculates the British government owes Indigenous Australians for use of their country between colonisation in 1788 and the country’s federation in 1901. “The interest keeps adding up, because they haven’t paid anything,” Bell says.

Bell is variously known in Australia as an “obnoxious attention-seeker” and a sensitive artist employing humour and chutzpah to drive radical change. A prolific painter, his works have titles such as Give It All Back, I See You as My Equal and Pardon Me for Being Born into a Nation of Racists. Some titles are based on protest placards used at the original tent embassy in Canberra. He cheerfully calls himself “an enema of the state”.

A documentary about his life and work, titled You Can Go Now!, reveals that Bell was 14 when authorities bulldozed his home, a tin shack with no electricity or running water, and moved the family into a condemned house. Bell moved to inner-Sydney Redfern as a young man, where he worked in the Aboriginal Legal Service and became politicised. “I’m an activist disguised as an artist,” he says.

You Can Go Now! was screened in cinemas on 26 January, Australia Day, which commemorates the proclamation of a British colony in Sydney Cove. While many still celebrate Australia Day, a large and vocal protest movement damns it as Invasion Day. Annual protest marches are held to abolish Australia Day or change the date.

Is Bell surprised by the success of Embassy? “Very much so,” he says. “People are really interested in the discussions but also the history of the tent. I’m pleasantly surprised at both.”

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