`Aboriginal Art Is A Black Thing` is a direct response to Richard Bell’s 2002 painting titled: `Scienta E Metaphysica (Bells Theorem), which is a work otherwise known as `Aboriginal Art It’s A White Thing`. A quite contemporary painting made up of six canvas panels, this work by Bell has become a constant feature in the Aboriginal Art arena since it won the prestigious 20th `Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award` in 2003; a win that raised a few eyebrows, as did this provocateur artist, who was a relatively unknown creator at the time, but was quick to make headlines on the very night of his award not only for his work, but for showing up to receive it wearing a T-shirt stating `white girls can’t hump`, which was considered to be somewhat offensive by some people in the media and beyond, while I, in contrast, thought the T-shirt and the artist quite amusing, but felt troubled by Bell`s winning work, because the message `Aboriginal Art It’s A White Thing` was misleading.
There is much to debate about in the Aboriginal Art arena and Bell’s `Scienta E Metaphysica (Bells Theorem), or `Aboriginal Art It’s A White Thing` – with the word `thing` appearing more like `ching`- is one such subject. Apart from the Chinese word Ching that seemingly has to do with `sexual energy`, or energy, the `ching` in Bell’s painting probably has to do with money in its relation to the lyrical `slang` word denoting the sound of a cash register. In relation to this Artist in association to his prize winning painting, Bell draws attention to the `Aboriginal Art Industry` in an interview with Hetti Perkins for her book `art+soul` in which Bell describes the industry as such: “… it’s a construct. You know, made by people who work within the industry that caters for Aboriginal art. I don’t think there is an Aboriginal arts industry per se. I think that there is an industry which caters for Aboriginal art. And it’s a white construct. It’s got very little to do with actual Aboriginal art.”
So what is Bell on about? White people dominate the industry, so it has little to do with actual Aboriginal Art = Aboriginal Art is a white thing? I do not know what Bell thinks `actual Aboriginal art` is, and the fact that a majority of `white foot soldiers` work in the industry does not exclude the reality that the Aboriginal Art industry grew from individual Aboriginal artists determined to sell their work to whoever would buy it. To be sure, it was Aboriginal artists in Central Australia who generated much of their own sales to tourists and locals long before the many community art centres and galleries that exist today were established. These institutions have simply been playing catch up with Aboriginal artists, who, in spite of the fact that there now has long been a push by the powers within the Aboriginal Art arena to encourage Aboriginal artists to only sell to, or stick with, their own community art centres and choice galleries, continue to remain their own `free agents` as were the first generation of contemporary Aboriginal artists before them.
Bell might also be missing the fact that the most powerful people in the Aboriginal Art arena in this past decade and longer have been people of Indigenous heritage, namely: Wally Caruana, Hetti Perkins, Margo Neale, Brenda Croft, Djon Mundine and Franchesca Cubillo, who have been in positions of enormous influence. Whilst the less powerful, in contrast, have chiefly been Non-Indigenous managers of Aboriginal Community Art centres and Gallery owners and auctioneers, though the latter do wield some power in the Art Market, they generally, however, follow what the most powerful give the nod to. Nevertheless, the noticeable absence of Indigenous gallery owners might give Richard Bell justification for his views, but the reality is that Indigenous people in remote areas, in particular, are clearly hindered in owning galleries by Traditional Aboriginal Culture, which dictates that family members must share with relatives. That is, an Indigenous gallery owner in remote Alice Springs, as an example, would be under enormous pressure holding money and stock back from family members. To be sure, holding onto the business purse is basically an impossibility without negative repercussions imposed upon any individual Indigenous gallery owner by family members. This situation might, however, be a little different today, but it certainly was not when Bell created his work in 2002.
Richard Bell enjoys being a provocateur and his audience enjoy him being one, because he does it so well, as is the case in inspiring me to produce a visual response to his `Scienta E Metaphysica (Bells Theorem), or `Aboriginal Art It’s A White Thing` (ching), which veils the reality of the creative achievements by Aboriginal artists and the industry they developed and fuel. That `foot soldiers` might be white and are paid for their efforts does not conclude that money is the chief focus, just like money is not the chief focus for the Indigenous power brokers in the game. To say that money does not matter would, however, be naive, for everyone in the Aboriginal Art arena, or industry, needs purchasing power, even the artists, including Richard Bell.
That Aboriginal Masters like Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and even Emily Kngwarreye, for example, died without assets, which has been perceived as them living and dying poor, or more to the point, were `ripped off` artists, which, of course, they had been to some degree, but these artists seemingly poor financial circumstance had more to do with their spending, or giving to family members within the context of their Traditional Cultural obligations, than their actual earnings. Essentially, it is for these artists and all of our great Indigenous Masters from Papunya and beyond that prompted me to respond to Richard Bell’s prize winning painting through my own work `Aboriginal Art is a Black Thing`, which largely draws from Bell’s own piece in fashion to ensure clarity.