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When Art Becomes, Uz vs. Them

Campus | October 10, 2011

By Patrick McGrath 

The “Uz vs. Them” exhibition of Richard Bell, an artist-activist for Australian Aboriginal rights, is currently on display in the Tufts University Art Gallery. Bell’s multi-media work offers the viewer a glimpse of the current standing and contemporary stereotypes of Australian Aborigines both in Australia and across the world. Ranging from short films depicting artistic and engaging satiric pieces or interviews of present-day Australians on the history and rights of Aborigines to Pollock-like “drip” paintings to pop art graphics in homage to Roy Liechtenstein, Bell’s works certainly leave their mark on the viewer. Some paintings truly burst with color and sheer size, while others overwhelm with giant printed phrases that hypnotize the viewer, bombarding them with subliminal messages from all sides of the room.

Separate rooms are provided for Bell’s videos, which emit a distinct style and music, and the viewer can soak up the novelty of the exhibit with the resonant and abounding echoes of the didgeridoo. Viewers are truly treated to an indulgence for a variety of senses in taking in the diverse and multifaceted work of an undeniably talented and innovative artist.

In one video titled “Uz vs. Them,” Richard Bell stars as an Aborigine “fighting for Australia” against an aggressive white man. “I don’t need a tax cut. I want my whole country back,” Bell declares, voicing the frustration of the Aboriginal due to the lack of compensation from the Australian government for past misdoings against the indigenous Australians. “You know the trouble with white people is that they’re lazy. They’re so lazy if you take your eye off them, they’ll walk away and do something else. They’re just like children. I’m not a racist. Some of my best friends are white,” Bell says, turning the stereotype of lazy, drunk aboriginals on its head by calling into question those who created the bias in the first place.

Bell uses the same effect in a series of photographs of himself depicted in a confrontational and slovenly manner in a piece titled “Pigeon Holed.” The photographs are labeled, respectively, “drinker,” “tailor,” “sold yer,” “failure,” “butcher,” “baker,” and “trouble maker,” with the last photograph replaced by a mirror, forcing the viewer in the shoes of the stereotyped Aborigine and blurring the stereotypical borders between us and them.

“Thank Christ I’m not Aboriginal!!!” a white woman declares via-thought bubble in a piece of pop-art revival titled “The Peckin’ Order”. In contrast, Bell declares, “I want to be black again,” in another short film titled “Broken English.” Instead of seeking to discriminate against Aborigines and assimilate into the Western culture, Bell looks to promote and redefine Aboriginal society.

While Bell speaks up for this ever-diminishing culture, his solutions and resolutions come across as far too radical and wholly unrealistic. “Consequently, we are seeking alternative arrangements with a view to treaties, which guarantee for us parliamentary representation, sovereignty, etc. on our lands. We are conscious of the international popularity of democracy. Presently, we are outnumbered. This however, may be overcome by an aggressive emigrant-enhancement programme and favourable immigration policy,” Bell writes in a mock-letter to the “Chairman of the People’s Republic of China” in an enormous painting titled “Prospectus.22,” decorated with severed hands, indigenous Australian species, boomerangs, pickaxes, miniature cutouts of Bell which bleed down the canvas, and, directly in the center, a crown of barbed wire.

Rational and open-minded discussion on this controversial topic may never succeed if Bell takes such a controversial political stance as he does in “Uz vs. Them.” Furthermore, in works such as “Broken English,” instead of truly dispelling Aboriginal stereotypes, Bell chooses to feature and incriminate an ignorant and drunk, white Australian man. Is it fair to cast off an insulting stereotype by throwing that same bias upon another culture or type of people?

Bell’s frequent use of the term “Aryan” also reminds the viewer of times of bitter racism and Neo-Nazism. The prevalence of this term almost isolates and divides his audience, and thus, while Bell’s message remains clear, he excludes viewers that do not belong to his intended audience, especially non-Aboriginal Australians to whom the message would appear most pertinent.

“Genocide is not illegal,” Bell writes in another work made of acrylic and bitumen titled “In This Land.” This work, black and visceral, faded and seemingly indistinguishable through its coarse nature, serves as a serious and chilling reminder of past wrongs that are never to be forgotten. No matter the reality or controversy of Bell’s stance, his message remains eternal and poignant: communicating social change through art.

Bell’s work undoubtedly makes the viewer think, and one can not help but admire an artist who has the courage to address issues that may otherwise continue unnoticed. If not for the issues addressed, the exhibit is certainly worth a visit alone for the exceptional quality and ingenuity of Bell’s work, and the viewer will not leave disappointed. O