The Use of Indigenous Art to Support Social Justice Movements

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It’s probable that there are no other indigenous people on the planet with more right to protest than the original inhabitants of Australia. With the arrival of Captain Cook and the First Fleet they were shot at, infected with deadly diseases, dispossessed of their land, plied with alcohol, poisoned, assaulted, raped and killed. Over the intervening years they have been deprived of basic rights including food and water, housing, education, health care and employment. Their children have been taken away from them. They have been incarcerated at alarming rates, often dying in custody. Their life expectancy is significantly less than that of non-Indigenous Australians. Racism, whether casual or systemic is a fact of life, as is intergenerational trauma and the ongoing loss of cultural identity. By examining the work of two contemporary indigenous artists – Richard Bell and Karla Dickens – this essay will discuss how both artists have used their art practice to support particular political movements or draw attention to social justice issues as a means of increasing awareness, influencing public policy and affecting social change.

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Richard Bell (b. 1953) is part of the Kamilaroi community in Southern Queensland. He lives and works in Brisbane. He began working as an artist and political activist in the early 90s and is most well-known for his contentious written work, Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing (2002). Bell utilizes the visual tropes of Western artists to draw attention to the appropriation of Indigenous culture and the disadvantage suffered by Indigenous people since invasion. His oeuvre is dominated by painting, but he also creates video and installations. He has said of himself, ‘I am an activist masquerading as an artist.’ A close friend described him as ‘Richard Bell, the Black from Hell.’

Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne hosted an exhibition earlier this year of seven of Bell’s recent paintings. In differing ways, each work continues the artist’s campaign highlighting the many ramifications of the disempowerment of Indigenous people. In no uncertain terms, they command our attention. In One More Hour of Daylight (2017), Bell has painted a Madonna and Child, copied from a work by Leonardo Da Vinci. The figures sit over the top of another work by Kimberly artist Rover Thomas. Between the layered images is a black crucifix. By appropriating so blatantly, Bell challenges the long history of theft of Indigenous cultural intellectual property. The ominous title suggest that time is running out but for whom? Is the daylight equated with white domination of indigenous culture? One could also reasonably assume that the combination of Christian imagery with a more traditional artwork reminds us of the damage done to the original way-of-life in Indigenous communities by the work of Christian missionaries.

Bell’s role as activist and artist is further expanded in We Have to Share – an ironic platitude emblazoned in white over the top of a layered patchwork of fake Aboriginal paintings and Pollock-esque splatter. Once again Bell is demanding our attention, asking us to reconsider how we might move towards a more equitable cultural outcome by ensuring that the wealth derived from the sale and resale of Indigenous artwork results in a more generous portion returning to the artist and his/her community. Of course, the need to share could also refer to more than remuneration for art – land, resources, opportunities.

In the painting Great Scott, Bell returns to familiar territory, plagiarizing Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book characters. We see an ecstatic blonde, head tilted back as she exclaims, ‘THANK CHRIST I’M NOT A REFUGEE.’ Here Bell presents us with another ‘persecuted other’ to compare to our own egocentric collective consciousness. The viewer is left to simultaneously cringe and chuckle. The humor of these works is never lost on Indigenous people. They quickly recognize the truth in the message. In that sense, Bell’s work can be compared to advertising

.It delivers clear messages that land like a blow to the face. His paintings are like the slogans and jingles in advertising that never go away. Their power as propaganda is palpable. They will remain as an ongoing threat and a challenge. However, Indigenous people are not Bell’s target. Bell wants to irritate and offend non-indigenous Australia in an effort to make us stop and think and perhaps, to rethink. Karla Dickens is part of the Wiradjuri community but now lives on the NSW North coast. Since graduating from the National Art School in the 90s, her work has defined her identity as a Wiradjuri woman, her sexuality as a lesbian and her role as a single mother. She describes herself as a menopausal woman pushing 50, with plenty to say and nothing to lose.

‘I am not a politician; I’m an artist, a storyteller. With my art, I talk about my personal experiences. I don’t set out to make political statements. I am political, simply because I am who I am.’ On 16 August 2017, Karla Dickens spoke to students and faculty at the National Art School. Her visit coincided with the inclusion of her work in Grounded: Contemporary Australian Art at the National Art School Gallery. During her hour-long talk, Karla specifically referred to Warrior Women, a collection of 20 sculptural forms. All were built upon life sized polished aluminium female underwear that resemble chastity belts, stern and strong and ornamented with dangling collections of ageing detritus collected from local hard waste tips near Karla’s home. Placed carefully across the pubic area are an array of found objects. Some are vaguely humorous – Aboriginal kitsch, false teeth and old teaspoons. Others are more sinister and unsettling – fishing lures with sharp hooks, rusty barbed wire, locks and keys, lengths of chain and leather cord, animal skins and hair and a bell inscribed with the message ‘ring for service’. The work is accompanied by a poem called Warrior Women, written by Dickens. The following verse further articulates the meaning of the work: Hardened undergarments big girls’ undies protective covers personal security guards Dickens explained that the creation of the work was motivated by the brutal murder of her friend Lynette Daley on a remote beach during a fishing trip on Australia Day, 2011. It took 6 years for her killers to be tried and sentenced. Speaking outside the court, Ms. Daley’s step father Gordon Davis said, “If it was two Aboriginal boys and they had done that to a non-indigenous person, they would’ve been in jail ages ago, and that’s the difference.” Karla also spoke about the long history of sexual exploitation and violence directed towards indigenous women and the substandard response from the criminal justice system. Warrior Women is a testimony to the resilience of indigenous women. The work also acknowledges their role as story tellers – custodians of knowledge about the past, as well as stories of a dynamic contemporary Indigenous culture. The work is also reminiscent of another work by Dickens called Assimilated Warriors, a collection of masks that appeared in the group exhibition, Hearby Make Protest, held at Carriageworks in 2014. Dickens has ornamented the masks with found objects including teeth, raffia and feathers, all pointing to tribal origins. These have been combined with rusty parts from farming machinery, suggesting a connection to Australia’s rural economy and the shared labors of indigenous and non-indigenous workers. We are reminded that in this setting, the labors of indigenous workers were poorly rewarded, and their treatment was often harsh and discriminatory. The use of masks also suggests anonymity, like the hoods worn by Klan members in America’s deep South. Alternatively, they may provide protection if worn by indigenous people, a source of safety. As with Warrior Women, Assimilated Warriors expresses raw pain. We are deeply conscious that Dickens’ work is a personal response to her own trauma as well as a commentary on the terrible statistics associated with domestic violence towards indigenous women.

Aboriginal people have survived a litany of catastrophic events for over 200 years, many driven by the dominant view that there was nothing of value in Indigenous culture and that Indigenous people were in every way less than those of European origin. Contemporary Indigenous artists are using their work to fight back, to assert that Indigenous culture is strong and enduring. By examining recent work by Richard Bell and Karla Dickens we can see that both artists use their art practice to make clear statements about the life experiences of Indigenous people, past and present, in an effort to reclaim agency, stimulate public debate and to bring about real change.

While progress on social justice issues may be slow, Aboriginal contemporary art is now part of the general discourse over contemporary art. It is collected and displayed along with non-Indigenous contemporary art. Its inclusion can no longer be regarded as the appropriation of Aboriginal art for ethnographic purposes by White Australian institutions.

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