When artist Richard Bell won the 2003 National Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in late August, he collected the $40,000 prize for his painting "Scienta E Metaphysica (Bells Theorum)", wearing a t-shirt inscribed with the words "White girls can't hump".
To my disappointment, instead of hearing a deafening chorus of "Who says so?" or even "Try me!", feminists, cultural theorists, politicians and academics are out in high dudgeon, chastising Bell for artistic repetition and Indigenous separatism. Some people have no sense of humor! To me, Bell's uniquely macho t-shirt truisms are the stuff of 21st century Indigenous legend and no real Australian male can afford to be without one.
Indeed, Telstra's CEO Ziggy Switkowski was photographed beside Bell minutes after presenting the prize and Telstra's Northern Territory General Manager said he was pleased the artist "didn't try to change himself just for the art awards".
Selected by judges Dr Brian Kennedy, Director of the National Gallery of Australia and Francesca Cubillo, Director of the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Tandanya, Adelaide, Bell's colorfully gridded painting is inscribed with the words "Aboriginal Art Is A White Thing" beneath paint splashes dashed across the surface.
However, The Australian's national art critic, Susan McCulloch disagrees with Bell's wardrobe almost as much as she dislikes his prize-winning painting. In her review of the prize, she was troubled by "Scienta's" non-traditional style and the artist's loan of western iconography and questions its dated political message about the Aboriginal art market.
It's a pity because although McCulloch, an early exponent of Indigenous art, notes that rip offs happen to most artists at least once in their careers, unscrupulous middlemen have especially disadvantaged Aboriginal painters over the years. And as the market for Aboriginal art gradually broadens beyond dot paintings to embrace other equally compelling artistic idioms, why wouldn't Bell want to comment on the atrocious inequities the Indigenous art market is party to, given how many Australian Aborigines now depend on art sales for income?
In articles since the prize, Bell describes his career moves from "doing tourist art", to becoming the "big mouth having a say", and his determination not to be "ghettoized" as an Indigenous artist. He's recently moved from the specialised Indigenous art market into a mainstream contemporary art gallery. I've got a feeling that Bell wants his work to sell as much as the next man, so a little media-driven indignation wouldn't go astray either.
But the real issue here seems to be the disappearance of long-established preeminent visual traditions in Indigenous art. Although the "look" of Aboriginal dot paintings is now widely reproduced on anything from airline staff uniforms to automobile logos, critics like McCulloch seem to be uneasy with artist-driven critiques of where this phenomenal cultural cash crop has ended up.
There's a lot at stake. In the past three decades, the Indigenous art movement has led to a genuine recovery of Aboriginal cultural heritage and has visualised Indigenous Australians' identity into the center of Australian life by introducing the world to tribal mythologies and becoming a multi million-dollar industry in the bargain. Intellectual property rights for Indigenous arts are now at the forefront of proposed amendments to the Australian copyright and royalty legislation and a series of important cultural protocols were recently adopted by all national arts agencies.
This begs more questions about how conditions for Indigenous artists and non-artists alike have remained so alarmingly bad throughout this entire boom. Shouldn't we be asking "who is making all the money out of Aboriginal art?" - because it is glaringly obvious that the artists themselves aren't. Richard Bell evidently thinks these are urgent issues and he's prepared to address them in his artwork.
So it's not surprising that "Scienta" is loaded with visual quotes and painterly gestures celebrating non-Indigenous contemporary art greats, from Jackson Pollock's signature splashes, to text based conceptual polemicists such as Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth. It's a wide stretch for any artist black or white to be making, given the latter two artists' rigorous theoretical endeavors. But Bell's use of such well worn visual devices didn't appear to bother McCulloch so much as her feeling that Bell has missed art history's historical time zone for protest painting by a mile.
It's a bit hard to tell whether McCulloch thinks bad boy Bell was born too late or too black for it to be worth him getting angry about the iniquitous conditions his race continues to face in our society, or that engaging rage in contemporary artistic expression is just too last century for her taste. Who hires these people? Why are their Sunday- schoolish views of contemporary Indigenous Australia's limited rights to the full spectrum of creative experience dominating mainstream media's critical inches without comment or question? A more politically shallow and culturally exclusive interpretation of the manifold passions, intuitions and furies driving 21st century Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists' creative consciousness would be hard to find.
I haven't seen "Scienta" in the flesh so it would be misleading of me to be making critical pledges as to the quality of its visual ideas. But I take issue with McCulloch's approach to what may be amounting to the passing of a lucrative era of Indigenous Australian art in favor of a demanding artistic epoch ahead. Regardless of where we end up, I celebrate Richard Bell's gutsy in-ya-face intellectual boisterousness. I mean, how long has it been since you heard an artist declare, "I'm not racist. Some of my best friends are white."