Television programs about Australian art are usually hosted by plummy-mouthed former gallery directors. Tonight artist Richard Bell is back on the screen with the second series of Colour Theory on NITV (channel 34 free to air) co-produced and written by Hetti Perkins. Bell is an artist who is often described as provocative and controversial, and in this four part series he travels Australia to talk to four indigenous artists. He meets Dale Harding, Teho Ropeyarn, Lucy Simpson and Megan Cope and chats with them about their inspirations and work methods and documents the journey made from studio to exhibition. Below, Bell answers some questions about talking about art on screen, preconceptions and assumptions about Aboriginal art, and how things have become worse not better for Aboriginal Australians since the world discovered Aboriginal art.
Colour Theory is now in its second series. How hard is it to explain complex ideas about art in one-line sentences?
Really hard. Like you, as a writer, it’s hard to drum up in one sentence.
Is art easier to understand than many people think?
Yes. I think it is if you open yourself up to it and are given clues on how to read art.
Art is probably both subjective and objective. Looking at art is both personal and subjective.
The meaning of the art comes from both; everybody sees things differently. There are things that have been pointed out to me that other people have noticed in my own paintings that I hadn’t noticed before. That’s one of the beauties of art; we can see things differently.
What skills have you learned as a result of hosting the show?
How not to get upset when all the good stuff is cut out. The producers and directors made a choice to tone down some of my humour towards the artists. For example, I had a crack at Jake Nash in series one who is super confident, good looking and talented, and on camera I asked him if he was ever been called the black Fabio. These kind of cheeky elements I think have been cut.
I think it’s from learning how to converse with people at a younger age. I prefer to make it conversational rather than applying a structure as some others can do in production. There are times where I will be straight out with the artist and ask them directly, “What the fuck are you doing with this artwork?”
What reactions have you had to your participation in the show?
I find it unbearable to watch myself, probably because of vanity issues. It’s been mostly positive (the feedback from peers and family). I think they like to see someone on television that they’re familiar with, someone they know personally.
Who do you imagine your audience is for Colour Theory – those interested in art generally, or those interested in indigenous culture, or both?
Both. It’s a good blend, but it really depends on the viewer. From my perspective it’s geared towards both. Like I mentioned before, other people see things differently. But for me, it’s well balanced between the two.
When people around the world think of Australian art they usually think of Aboriginal art before non-indigenous art. Why do you think that is?
Because they can see better examples of European art in Europe and North America. So, naturally, there is little interest.
Has the huge increase in awareness of Aboriginal art in the last 40 years improved life for Aboriginal people in that it has brought worldwide attention to Australian Aboriginal life?
No. All the evidence points against it. Commissions have been declining rather than increasing. Things have gotten worse rather than better. We didn’t have the intervention 40 years ago; we didn’t have restrictions on Aboriginal daily life that comes with the intervention. They’re only teaching English in some communities where this can be their third or fourth language, which is ignoring the needs of the community. When international artists come to the Australian cities with rudimentary English they always have interpreters, so why isn’t this the same for Aboriginal artists who come to the cities?
Much of this broad knowledge Aboriginal art is about “traditional” work isn’t it?
Yes, but I don’t see it as a problem. I think we (contemporary artists) need to be making more work; we need to be making better work. If we do that, we could solve the problem of lack of exposure.
What preconceptions do people have about Aboriginal art?
– is made in the desert
– comes with a story
– comes with spirituality
– is powerful, and often associated with exploitation
Do these preconceptions make it harder for artists such as yourself in making contemporary work?
Let’s get one thing straight. Black Fellas from urban areas are not allowed to make Aboriginal art that looks like it comes from the desert (because they say then that our work would be derivative), yet there are white artists who are appropriating Aboriginal art and design. Not only are these white artists allowed to do this, but they are celebrated for doing it and they can even win prizes and commissions.
The key to changing this lies in us making much more work and much better work. We can’t just expect it to be made better for us; we have to make the work that is worthy of the attention that we’re seeking. The recognition will come automatically after that. We just have to work harder than everybody else.
Are artists comfortable with being described as “Aboriginal artists” before being described as “artists”?
Some of us do. Some don’t. I’m comfortable with being called an Aboriginal artist. I suppose some artists worry about being marketed as Aboriginal artists, but my position is different to other people. I consider myself as an Aboriginal artist, but I don’t make Aboriginal art; I make contemporary art. For me, I don’t mind the Aboriginal label; I’m big enough and strong enough to carry that.
Is all art by indigenous people “political”?
Just the act of painting is a political act. Many people believe that the act of making art is political. People see things differently and you can’t tell them what they can and can’t see, they make their own conclusions. If a political element is there, then it’s there.
Is the collecting pool for contemporary indigenous work bigger or smaller than that for non-indigenous contemporary work?
Much, much, much smaller. The feminist American curator Maura Reilly examined the demographic of the artists in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum, and The Whitney Museum in New York, alongside the Tate Modern in London and the Kaldor Wing of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. What she discovered was that in all but the Whitney Museum, 95% of the collections were made up by artists who were white males, four per cent were white female, and one per cent represented the rest of the world. As a matter of interest white people constitute about ten per cent of the world’s population.
Is there enough support for indigenous art from our state institutions and funding bodies?
Not when you see the shit they consistently buy and exhibit. Obviously from the figures above, they need to start spending much more of their money on work by non-white artists, and stop buying all the shit that they do.
Has the resale royalty fee introduced by the last federal government increased income for indigenous artists?
Dunno, but I doubt it.
What do you think of the current government’s indications that it might scrap the resale royalty?
I don’t. I reckon there are more pressing issues. Personally, I would like to see the introduction of an artists’ dole for all artists and the immediate banning of the use of unpaid interns in the arts sector. The facts of the matter are, that artists already have a job but it doesn’t always pay. It’s like the farmers during the drought, artists have droughts too.
All our state galleries and the ANG have substantial collections of Aboriginal art. Do you think there should be at least one single museum in Australia devoted to our indigenous art both past and present?
I’m ambivalent towards that idea. If we focus on that, it lets them off the hook. They should have been buying lots more and they should be buying much more now.