Despite the rain, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at RMIT Gallery on 10 March for the opening of Richard Bell: Imagining Victory. The exhibition, developed by Artspace and toured by Museums & Galleries of NSW, presents the leading Australian artist’s highly acclaimed and provocative works Scratch an Aussie (2008) and Broken English (2009) as well as the series’ culminating new work The Dinner Party (2013).
The trilogy of video works expand upon narratives and concepts developed within Bell’s artistic practice that draw heavily upon the mechanisms of activism. In the context of the gallery opening , where viewers with glasses of wine seemed to mimic the actors on the screen captured in similar settings, Bell’s work had an added edge.
It was fitting that Wurundjeri Elder Colin Hunter Jr, related to the traditional owners of the land on which the university gallery stands, warmly welcomed guests to enjoy the work.
Bell has been a leading force within the field of contemporary Australian art since the 1990s, making provocative gestures and works that confront the histories and present issues surrounding race relations. The artist frequently integrates expressions of political, cultural, social and economic disenchantment emerging out of the uneasy relationship between Aboriginal peoples and colonial migrants to Australia.
The exhibition opening coincided with the Australia Council Awards ceremony in Sydney, where Bell was on hand to receive a prestigious Australia Council Visual Arts Award. The 2016 Australia Council awards honour eight distinguished Australian artists who have made an exceptional contribution to the arts over many years. These prestigious national awards combine long-standing lifetime and outstanding achievement awards in music, literature, community arts and cultural development, visual arts, theatre, dance, and emerging and experimental arts.
Professor Paul Gough , Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice President, College of Design and Social Context, Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Vice-President, RMIT University, giving the opening address at the Richard Bell Imagining Victory exhibition. Photo by Margund Sallowsky.
In his exhibition opening address, Professor Paul Gough, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice President, College of Design and Social Context, Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Vice-President, RMIT University, said that for the viewer, Bell’s video trilogy is ‘hypnotically watchable and at the same time deeply discomforting”.
“These works demand that the audience confront their own perceptions of Aboriginal culture. By using outwardly accessible middle class locations, Bell lures the viewer into a safe space. If we feel uncomfortable watching these caustic and beautifully crafted narratives then he will have achieved his aim – never underestimate the lingering impact of this work.”
For the Biennale of Sydney (18 March – 5 June) Bell has constructed a tent on the lawn in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Titled ‘Embassy’ this homage to the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy will serve as the setting for a series of screenings and talks with prominent activists.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was first assembled by activists on the lawn of Parliament House, Canberra, in 1972 and continues to bring issues of Indigenous health, housing and land rights to the forefront of Australian politics to this day.
Elizabeth Fortescue, Visual arts writer for The Daily Telegraph, notes “Bell’s Embassy has already been activated in New York and Moscow. But establishing it in Sydney Cove, at arguably the exact spot where Governor Phillip raised the British flag, gives Embassy a piquancy it probably could not have anywhere else.”
If you would like to see Richard Bell’s work but can’t get to the @biennalesydney – head to @RMITGallery for Bell’s video trilogy – Imagining Victory (until 23 April).
Richard Bell: Imagining Victory is developed by Artspace and toured by Museums & Galleries of NSW.