Richard Bell: You Can Go Now!

The Richard Bell’s razor-sharp vision cuts through in incisive documentary form in the hands of academic and filmmaker, Larissa Behrendt.

It is surprising to think this is the first full length documentary feature on the iconoclastic Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman, and Gurang Gurang artist Richard Bell, whose career now spans thirty plus years. Knowing Richard’s practice, and his flair for satire, it’s a wonder that Bell has never produced his own mockumentary. Still, this new documentary entitled You Can Go Now, 2022, shows us that there are more layers to a complex artist who has always avoided being pigeonholed. The film is directed by Eualeyai/Kamillaroi academic, writer and filmmaker Larissa Behrendt, who produced the critically acclaimed 2019 documentary In my blood it runs.

You Can Go Now succeeds as a documentary because it largely puts its main subject in the background for the length of the film and dedicates much screen time towards setting the scene and profiling esteemed Indigenous activists and intellectuals. Much of the film is devoted to the historical and socio-political contexts that informed Aboriginal people’s lives in the twentieth century, including Bell’s. For an artist with such a larger-than-life personality and notoriety, Bell seems very comfortable and welcoming of being seen as the torchbearer of the many great Indigenous activists, artists, and dissidents who came before him.

The film’s brief but detailed outlining of the Indigenous contemporary art movements of the 1980s and 1990s is a terrific inclusion in the documentary, and clearly articulates the uniqueness of the Indigenous art from the Southeast of Australia that was developing in capital cities at the time. This is a particular area of focus that should be highlighted much more, as there are still many persistent notions around what constitutes “authentic” Indigenous art, and many artists of the 1980s and 1990s, including Bell, worked hard to create bold and innovative work that challenged these conceptions.

Many younger generations in Australia now are seeming to have less and less awareness of the important socio-political histories that are referenced in the film. Inner Sydney Suburbs such as Redfern and Chippendale, which the film highlights as once being vibrant epicentres for Indigenous people, are now largely unrecognizable compared to the film’s archival footage, and today are overcrowded suburbs that largely house the swelling populations of international students for nearby universities. There should be more advocacy around sharing and discussing these histories for younger generations or for those in educational settings with little prior knowledge of Indigenous political histories in this country. You Can Go Now could be a powerful tool in this endeavour, with many contextual opportunities to screen it in diverse settings, such as high school art classrooms, or university humanities courses.

Further to this, the film’s detailing of Bell’s relationship with African American artist and activist Emory Douglas is a thoughtful inclusion, as it again widens the scope of Bell’s art practice and his influences, allowing viewers to see how the Indigenous Australian socio-political movements of the twentieth century had much in common with the African American movements that were taking place at the same time. Many viewers may be surprised at this connection and by the fact that many Indigenous Australians still feel a great affinity for African American culture. Bell’s friendship with Douglas and their collaborative artworks exemplify these points of solidarity and cultural connection.

The film excels in outlining the many contexts and movements that shaped Bell’s transition from grassroots activist to internationally acclaimed fine artist, and the documentary’s major achievement is realising a scope broad enough for many different people can engage with the film, and learn about Indigenous Australian history and culture.

Some of Richard Bell’s greatest works are his moving image pieces lathered with black humour and raunchy satire. Seldom shown are works like The Dinner Party, 2013 which highlight Richard’s wicked sense of humour and other video works such as Scratch an Aussie, 2008 and Broken English, 2009 showcase the artist’s keen awareness of Australia’s cultural psyche. As an artist, Bell is able to operate much like a skilled neurosurgeon, as if the nation’s exposed brain is before him – he has instinctively always known which bundle of nerves to tap to get the desired response.

Over the course of his career, Richard Bell has been consistently framed as provocative, controversial, and inflammatory. This has largely come at the hands of media organisations, politicians, and the old guard elites of the Australian art world. Bell’s art, and his personality, have succeeded in creating cognitive dissonance in the minds of certain Australians who would rather find comfort in a paternalistic stereotype of an Indigenous artist. These persistent stereotypes infantilise Indigenous artists as meek and unambitious people, who humbly offer up their “traditional” art to be praised and coddled. Bell should be seen as a trailblazer in this regard, an Indigenous artist who has always refused not to rock the boat.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

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