Image: Richard Bell, Embassy, 2023 © Tate (Jordan Anderson)
Renowned artist and activist Richard Bell speaks with freelance Torres Strait Islander journalist Rhianna Patrick about his installations Embassy and Pay the Rent (UK) now exhibiting at the Tate Modern in London until 18 June, with investment from the Australia Council’s Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy (VACS) Major Commissioning Works program. Bell’s Pay the Rent (UK) makes him the first Australian artist to be programmed in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall space.
Rhianna: This exhibition was made possible through a Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy (VACS) Major Works commission. What did it mean to get major support like that, to be able to put this exhibition on?
Richard: It’s been a while. Look, they [Tate Modern] first started talking about the show in 2017, and it’s been postponed for various reasons, like mainly COVID. So I’ve had quite a long wait and a bit anxious about it, actually. I thought that perhaps they would can it. So I’m very happy that it’s gone ahead.
Rhianna: Richard, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the UK is at the moment in their own truth telling, truth reckoning. And I note that the UK PM, Rishi Sunak, refused recently to acknowledge the UK’s part in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and wouldn’t commit to paying any reparations. But while the UK grapples with its past and that kind of past there, how ready do you think they are for an exhibition like yours, which is clearly about colonisation and what happened here in Australia?
Richard: That’s a really good question. Well, we’re going to find out, aren’t we? Because I’m certainly going to test them. So, we’ll find out for sure.
Rhianna: What can audiences expect then from Embassy’s presentation at the Tate?
Richard: I don’t think they’ve sort of been pushed about this before. I know that they’ve been telling us about slavery, but I don’t think they even think about colonisation in the same terms, in the same breath. Quite surprised that they’ve actually stolen this land. There’s some [missed] beats going on. My modus operandi has always been to wait and see what’s there. I never speculate on what’s to come. I wait and see what’s there. I could waste a lot of energy with that kind of speculation. Sorry about that.
Rhianna: That’s a good way of looking at it. Why put yourself through that stress? I get that.
Richard: Yeah. I try to avoid that kind of stress. Don’t even bother with that kind of speculation.
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Rhianna: Tell me about pulling this exhibition together. Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to include knowing where it would be exhibited? Is there a real purpose in what UK visitors will see?
Richard: The thing that they’ve asked me to do is my Embassy project where I’ve been doing a tribute. I created an artwork, which is a tribute to the original embassy, but also, it’s a tribute to the young Aboriginal people around Australia who 12 years ago were setting up tent embassies all around Australia to be able to raise attention to the problems that were facing them in their communities. And this was happening not just in cities, it was happening in country towns as well. I thought it was quite phenomenal. So I did this tribute to them in Melbourne at Monash University. I managed to get Gary Foley to come and talk with me first. And since then, I’ve been invited to places around the world like New York, Moscow even, Jakarta, Jerusalem, the Netherlands.
“This is the capital of the empire, of the British Empire, which colonised our country… I’ll be speaking with the descendants of the slave trade, people who are here, who are more recent migrants, and directly as a result of the wars that this country’s been involved in.”
This is the capital of the empire, of the British Empire, which colonised our country. Obviously, I have to think about how to choose the guests and have to speak about this. I’ll be speaking with the descendants of the slave trade, people who are here, who are more recent migrants, and directly as a result of the wars that this country’s been involved in. The victims of those wars who have found their way to this country. Like a lot of countries in the world, they’re having troubles adjusting to this influx of people with different cultures, different appearances. And they’re dealing with it in much the same way that Australia has in the past. They’re now using the terminology that was used in Australia, anti-immigration. They’re saying, “Stop the boats.” It’s really weird to hear this nonsense.
Rhianna: Is it surreal then to be delivering this in what is the heart of the empire?
Richard: It certainly is. I haven’t come to terms with the fact that that’s going to happen on Saturday (18 May). So, I’m still preparing myself for that fact. It is quite surreal to be here and to be able to present to this audience some things that will be quite shocking that they’ve not been taught about themselves and about their predecessors.
Rhianna: What’s the conversation that you hope the audience has with what you’re presenting? What do you hope they walk away with?
Richard: I hope they walk away with a renewed sense of history, that they will have learned quite a bit about their past. I’m not sure that they’ve been taught much about this, and I think this is part of what’s necessary for this country as well as ours. There has to be truth telling at some stage of this process. So, I’ll be inviting guests to talk about their realities in this country and about their progress along the way. Some will obviously talk about the lack of progress that is evident in this whole thing. I think that will be probably the marker of this place, of this exercise of Embassy. Obviously, it’s got a place in their truth telling process, which is a quite a big responsibility, to be honest.
Rhianna: Do you think an exhibition like this at the Tate Modern could have happened earlier in your career? Or does this feel like it is the right time?
Richard: Look, I think it’s the right time. For me, I think I’m ready for it. I don’t feel that out of place. Here, I feel, ‘yeah, okay, this is my job, this is what I got to do now’. Look, it could have come earlier. It could’ve come in 2017 acutally. So yeah.
Rhianna: But is that something you think about? Feeling out of place? Is that something that you have felt in your career, that you have been out of place?
Richard: Yes. Well, I started making art quite late, so I was 33 I think before I even started making art. So that’s pretty late in art. So yeah, I’ve been doing this thing for 37 years. I’ve been patient. I’ve worked hard all along the way, I’ve been trying to ready myself for these moments, for moments like these, at documenta15 last year, and this year, a show in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.
Image: Richard Bell, Pay the Rent 2022, at documenta15, courtesy Milani Gallery
Rhianna: I was thinking about Pay the Rent, the original piece and that it’s been more than a decade since you created that. The piece was this comment on the commodifying of Aboriginal art and I guess the subsuming by white Australia of that art. And I wonder, how do you view that now all these years later? How do you view that conversation that you were having through that piece, and where do you think that conversation is now all these years later?
Richard: Well, I don’t think we’ve moved very far, to be honest. There’s just been that scandal that broke recently about the art communities in South Australia. That would seem to indicate that we haven’t moved very far. I wrote an essay in 2002. Not that much had changed. I wrote another essay last year in 2022 in response to it. I don’t think there has been that much change, to be honest. I’m prepared to listen to an argument to the opposite.
Rhianna: Pay the Rent (UK) is a digital ticker that will also be a part of this exhibition and shows what is owed by the UK reparations wise to Indigenous people. But I know this piece is much more than that. What’s the bigger conversation that’s lying underneath the surface of that ticker?
“Capitalism commodifies, and it puts a value on everything… They haven’t bothered to do this. It’s an unimaginable number. It’s so much that it could never be repaid. This is how much we, as Aboriginal people, as the occupiers, as the owners of Australia, this is just an attempt at trying to calculate how much money is owed.”
Richard: Well, everything is commodified in this world. I just wanted people to be able to visualize something like the amount of money that is involved here. And this side only refers to rent on the continent of Australia. It’s an unimaginable number. It’s so much that it could never be repaid. This is how much we, as Aboriginal people, as the occupiers, as the owners of Australia, this is just an attempt at trying to calculate how much money is owed. Capitalism commodifies, and it puts a value on everything. They haven’t bothered to do this. So, I’m reminding them what they owe us just in terms of the use of the land.
Now I’m not talking about the resources that they’ve stolen either. This is just about paying the rent. The numbers are just absolutely impossible for them to pay. What we need is some money, some land at least. And we need power-sharing. There’s no point in giving us this compensation, any kind of compensation of land and money without having a share of the power. A voice to parliament is ridiculous. Give us dedicated seats. Give us 10% of the seats in all houses of parliament. Do something like that, as well as giving us reparations or compensation, whatever you call it. These are the things that we need. Most of our people are captured by it in poverty, in abject poverty. We need to address this situation. Poverty is the cause of so many of our problems.
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Rhianna: So in a way, this piece, Richard, is not only about the fact that that money could never ever, ever be a thing, but also again, tying in with that Embassy piece and the tent embassy of showing the poverty that our people continue to live in.
Richard: Yeah. And the fact that our people chose such a modest form of embassy. They chose not to have an embassy in “Embassy Row” somewhere. They chose to erect something that was collapsible because they knew that it would get torn down. If they took one down or took it away, it didn’t really matter, just get another one. It was actually a stroke of genius to come up with that idea.
Rhianna: Yeah, why build it solidly if it’s just going to get taken down? Whereas this is easy enough to just keep putting up each time.
Richard: Yeah, it’s like a conceptual embassy, and it can take different forms. The first Aboriginal tent embassy was actually a beach umbrella. So that’s the amount of adaptability that’s attached to this project.
Rhianna: You mentioned before a little bit about what the UK audience can expect in Embassy, that there’ll be some speakers around slave trade, some speakers who are recent migrants. Can you give anything else away about what might be seen or heard?
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Richard: Yeah. Well, I’ll have a guest from Canada and she’ll be talking about the British colonisation of North America, including her lands, I have also got a Mohawk from the United States. And together, they will tell us their story from another Indigenous perspective. And the experiences are remarkably similar, not surprisingly, to be honest.
Rhianna: I’ve always wondered about what that audience gets when they’re immersed in a work like Embassy, where they can sit, watch and hear from people. What do you think that gives the viewer that is different to say just looking at a piece of art? And why is that important for you that people sit in this work and engage with it in this way?
Richard: Oh look, this is the beauty of art is that we can have these really difficult conversations where we can raise these issues. Because, well, it is the nature of art to be accepting of these differences, these different points of view, these different approaches, different perspectives. Very many people love to be involved in this process. So I’m hoping that as many people as possible will come through and perhaps be enlightened, or at the very least informed of things that are going on that they’ve previously been unaware of.
Rhianna: Richard, when I think about disruption and I think about how your work has always been about disrupting the space and disrupting that space within institutions in what you present, and I think about you being in the heart of the empire doing this, I wonder where do you go from here? Where else would you like to disrupt and where else would you like to be able to start the conversations or to be a part of those conversations?
“Democracy needs a reset. We have countries where their constitutions are 250 years old. They’re so inadequate, and they’re so out of touch with life today. We need new constitutions. We need to restart.”
Richard: Oh, look, I think you start at the bottom. I want to go back to the communities and start talking about the democracy. We should all be concerned about democracies everywhere. What I’m seeing, democracies are collapsing into fascism all over the world. It just seems to be the way of this modern contemporary world. We have fascists marching on the street in Australia, giving Nazi salutes saying, “Sieg Heil.” It’s terrifying.
I’m trying to imagine a better world. I’m trying to imagine how we can make this a better world. Democracy needs a reset. We have countries where their constitutions are 250 years old. They’re so inadequate, and they’re so out of touch with life today. We need new constitutions. We need to restart. We need to reset at some point where we can move on in the future, and being able to adequately address some of the problems that we have.
Lobbying of politicians should be banned. And it needs to be put in the Constitution so it can’t be touched by the future politicians. There are some things that are sacrosanct, come on, like healthcare, education. They need to be untouchable. Housing needs to be untouchable. We need to take stock of what’s happened right in front of us.
Capitalism was only invented a little more than 200 years ago, and it’s only taken that long to bring the whole planet to its knees. We have to do something about this to try to save the planet as it exists right now. It’s almost a thoroughly daunting task ahead of us. And a lot of these so-called democracies are not listening to the people, they’re listening to corporations, and we need to deal with it, with this phenomenon.
Rhianna: So, Richard, are you saying that there might be work in the wings around democracy and around everything that you’ve just spoken about there in trying to spark that conversation?
Richard: Yes. Yes. Yes. Oh yes, I am. Well, there’s no better place, is there? The heart of empire.
Richard Bell – Embassy and Pay the Rent (UK) are exhibiting at the Tate Modern until 18 June 2023.
The VACS Major Commissioning Projects (Individuals and Groups) opportunities close for applications on Tuesday 6 June. More info here.