Enfant terrible , bad boy of Aboriginal art , angry Aboriginal artist , these are some of the terms that have been used to describe Richard Bell. Bell, however, describes himself as a propagandist and his art as liberation art; propagandist because his highly coloured synthetic polymer on canvas works speak of Aboriginal oppression, government policies, anthropological research, art market feeding frenzies, Aboriginal art industries and non-Aboriginal Australia’s fascination with 'the exotic other’; liberation art because as Bell states in his artist statement in the 2007 “Culture Warriors” catalogue
“Our art (art of east coast Aboriginal artists from closely settled east coast cities and towns) has been, incorrectly I believe, called 'urban Aboriginal art’. It is work that often speaks of contemporary injustices against our people. Liberation art is a far more accurate term that may also help to discourage the perpetual attempts to ghettoise us” (pg 59). Through his work Bell addresses continuing injustices against Aboriginal people. Bell himself has experienced some of these injustices.
Born in Charleville, Queensland, in 1953 the eldest of two boys, the family moved frequently in search of work, living in Augathella, Morven, Mitchell, Rockhampton, Dalby and Darwin. His father was frequently absent, working as a drover and cane cutter. By the time Bell was 17 he was living in a flat with his brother, Marshall (then 14) when their mother died. The Queensland authorities deemed that the two boys were in danger and threatened to send them to state government homes until they were fostered by Nellie and Harold Leedie in Bowenville, 60 kilometres northwest of Toowoomba in southeast Queensland. Nellie Leedie is a cousin of “Sugar” Ray Robinson the renowned Aboriginal activist from Charleville. Bell dropped out of high school in year twelve and began a toolmaking apprenticeship with Napier Brothers in Dalby. This was organised through the Dalby Waratahs A-Grade Rugby League Football Team who also secured him a tradesman’s (rather than an apprentice’s) wage. He stayed with Napier Brothers for two years and then in 1974 left to go fruit picking in Tasmania and Victoria before finding himself in Redfern, Sydney, later that same year. There he associated with and became part of the political movement. Sport too, was part of his Redfern experience and he played for the Redfern All Blacks Rugby League Team. After ten years of living in Sydney, Bell relocated to Toowoomba and found employment as an Office Manager with the Aboriginal Legal Service for a brief time. He then moved on to live in Moree with his partner, Liz Duncan, and they subsequently had two children, Marshall and Sissy (with his youngest, Sarah to follow in Brisbane in 1996). He already had three other children, Adrian, Richard, and Deborah. In Moree, Bell gained employment at the Pius 10th Aboriginal Corporation, an organisation that ran a pre-school, an adult education centre and a medical clinic. Bell was responsible for expanding the service to include a dental clinic.
After Sissy was born, Bell moved the family to Brisbane where he began working with his brother crafting boomerangs and other artefacts for the Brisbane international tourist market. They sold their work, along with the work of other artists including Robin O’Chin, from their own shop, 'Wiumulli’, in Melbourne Street in Brisbane’s CBD. This shop remained open from 1987 to 1990 but Bell continued making work for the tourism sector in Brisbane until 1994. As well as crafting boomerangs he made postcard style prints that were mounted and shrink-wrapped and distributed throughout Queensland and New South Wales tourist information centres and other tourist retail outlets. Though he was working as a 'tourist artist’ he was also being exhibited in 'fine art’ exhibitions and in 1989 he and Mark Garlett created the work, Rock (art) of Ages , which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery and shown in their “Balance 1990” exhibition. From 1998 until 2000, Bell was living the life of an itinerant in Moree, Kempsey and Redfern. During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, whilst in Redfern, Tiriki Onus ( Lin Onus 's son) invited Bell to attend the opening of his late father’s exhibition, “Urban Dingo”, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. This was to be the experience that changed the course of Bell’s artistic career. Before the opening, Bell, Onus and Michael Eather met for a discussion about art and politics which in turn led Bell to revisit his previous bodies of work, and in a 2008 interview with the author Bell stated that if he was “embarrassed in any way about his previous works he would return to Redfern and to drinking.” Bell re-read some of his earlier writings and interviews and decided that he wanted “to become as good as he was in the past.” Eather invited Bell back to Brisbane to work at Fireworks Gallery and for the following year Bell worked every day for at least twelve hours a day experimenting with different “looks” that could deliver the messages he wanted. The first series to emerge, Desperately Seeking Emily, was what Bell has described to the author as a “Pollock-like approach” to the work with text in relief underneath the painted surface that requires the audience to stand close to the work, forcing them to view it at all angles to read the “hidden” words. Artbank purchased one of these paintings in 2001. Mind Rover Matter (2001) was the next series but instead of synthetic polymer, ochre was employed as the medium. Here Bell was directly referencing the work of the celebrated Kimberly (WA) artist, Rover Thomas, and having a “dig” at the art world’s consumption of what Bell terms “Ooga Booga Art.” Other series that came out of this year of experimentation include The Rise and Rise of Aboriginal Art – a series of coloured bar graphs with geographic layers that had the appearance of cross-sectioned cities – and Shape Shifters, which showed black abstract shapes with the appearance of weird animals on white canvas. In 2002 Michael Eather offered Bell a place in the exhibition “Discomfort” alongside the works of Michael Nelson Jagamarra, Emily Kngwarreye and Imants Tillers at Fireworks Gallery. Bell was originally offered the space for a solo show but the premise of the show grew to include the other three artists. Bell’s work for this show was more of an installation piece where he pinned Bell’s Theorem (12 pages of text) to the gallery walls. Bell’s Theorem is Bell’s essay of his thoughts of the state of Australia’s marketing, consumption and exploitation of Aboriginal artists. At the same time Bell was reading anything and everything he could find on contemporary art. Reading some of Imants Tillers essays and other writings on Tillers he realised that he could “pull the black-fulla act on Tillers” and reproduced Tillers’ work Untitled (1978), in turn a reproduction of a Hans Heyson work, Summer (1909). Bell photocopied an image of Tillers’ version from a book, enlarged it and scanned it onto canvas – “just like Tillers’ original reproduction”. The next year (2003) with his confidence as painter re-claimed, Bell entered a major work, Scientia E Metaphysica , into the 2003 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, going on to win this prestigious prize. This national recognition presented Bell to the contemporary art world as an artist who clearly has something to say and says it loudly. The accompanying text for Scientia E Metaphysica was Bell’s Theorem. Bell has been curated into a number of key exhibitions since his 'Telstra’ win including his solo show, “Positivity”, at the Institute of Modern Art in 2006, the National Gallery of Australia’s first Indigenous Art Triennial, “Culture Warriors” in 2007, “Sunshine State – Smart State” at Campbelltown Arts Centre in Western Sydney in 2007, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ photographic exhibition, “Half Light: Portraits from Black Australia” in 2008 and the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, “Revolutions: Forms that Turn”, showing his work on Cockatoo Island on Sydney Harbour. He has also presented a number of solo exhibitions at Milani Gallery in Brisbane where he is represented. He is a founding member of the ProppaNOW artist collective in Brisbane where he lives. Other members of this group include Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Hookey, Laurie Nilsen, Jennifer Herd, Bianca Beetson, Tony Albert and Andrea Fisher.
Bell’s works are held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Queensland Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, Museum of Contemporary Art, Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Gold Coast Regional Gallery, Artbank, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Queensland.