Episode 6: Aboriginal Art: Is It A White Thing?

Artist Richard Bell on the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, May 2018

In 2003, Brisbane artist Richard Bell controversially declared: ‘Aboriginal art – it’s a white thing’. His essay, which became known as Bell’s Theorem, lambasted the anthropologists, art historians, dealers and curators, invariably white, who presumed to judge and evaluate Aboriginal art. Bell also decried the positioning of art from remote communities as somehow more ‘authentic’ than urban Aboriginal artists such as himself. “Most of my culture was ripped from me in the process of colonisation – I’m not going to make any apologies for that!’, he says.  In 2003 Bell’s associated artwork, Scienta E Metaphysica, won the prestigious Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Since then, he’s become an internationally renowned artist, his work held at London’s Tate Modern, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and exhibited at numerous Biennales.

But Richard Bell’s success has not come easily. Born in a tent, he lived on the fringes for decades. When Brisbane gallerist Josh Milani met him, he was destitute – but determined to make a living as an artist. This episode charts Bell’s extraordinary life and the deep bond between him and Milani, whose  Milani Gallery has become a leading outlet for contemporary Australian art. It also examines how Bell became a founding member of proppaNOW, an Indigenous artists’ collective that produces provocative contemporary ‘liberation art’.

When overseas, Bell can escape from racism. ‘I can pass for Italian or Greek’.  But at home, he is treated ‘like a prisoner’. He may be part of the elite art world now, but that doesn’t mean he has compromised his values. ‘We’ve positioned ourselves inside the tent… but that doesn’t stop us from getting outside and pissing ON the tent!’

Listen to Episode 6



Episode 5: More of the Matrix

When Judi Muller retired with a good pension, she decided to make ‘a personal act of reconciliation’ and sell Indigenous art on a small scale – the stuff that bypasses the big bucks. Mark Chapman has tailored his art supplies business to suit the desert conditions in which Indigenous artists work: his linen canvases are hand-primed with acrylic paint, which allows a better bond and creates a painting that is durable and transportable. Ruark Lewis is a multi-media artist who has been involved in an artistic ‘conversation’ with artists from other cultures including Barayuwa Munungurr, a Yolngu artist who paints his mother’s whale story. Their work shows a remarkable synergy and has been exhibited as far afield as Monaco.

Art by Ruark Lewis (L) and Barayuwa Munungurr (R), at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, 2015.

Listen to Episode 5


General Resources

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters: A major exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, curated by Heart of Artness co-host, Margo Neale.

Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art, a recent book by Ian McLean.

Short article by Siobhan McHugh and Ian McLean in The Conversation: ‘Aboriginal Art – is it a white thing?’

Article that analyses the process of oral history interviewing and its use for podcast/audio storytelling purposes: “The Affective Power of Sound: Oral History on Radio”, Siobhán McHugh, Oral History Review, Oxford University Press, Volume 39, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2012 pp. 187-206. This article was among OHR’s most cited and is reproduced in its 50th anniversary issue in 2016. It is also included in The Oral History Reader, 3rd ed, ed Perks & Thomson, Routledge 2016.
Note: if the hyperlinks to illustrative audio clips in the OHR article are broken, please listen to the audio clips here – they are a vital part of it!

Episode 5: More of the Matrix

Rambangi / Together as Equals’ 
xhibition (2015) at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin.
Artists: Barayuwa Munungurr, Ruark Lewis, Bengitj Ngurruwuthun, Jeffrey Ngurruwuthun

Gadawaulkwulk Means Shelter 
Exhibition (2012) Barayuwa Mununggurr and Ruark Lewis

Eaux Vivantes/Living Waters
Book of crosscultural artworks including works by Barayuwa Mununggurr and Ruark Lewis

Midwarr/Harvest Exhibition
National Museum of Australia with Yolŋu elder Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda and landscape painter John Wolseley.

ABC Radio National ‘Awaye’ program examining fake Indigenous artworks

Indigenous Art Code: monitors fair trade of Indigenous art.

Barayuwa Munungurr, artist

Ruark Lewis, artist

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, artist from Utopia

Episode 4: Meet the Matrix

Kartiya (white people) are like Toyotas  is the article by Kim Mahoud that Margo mentioned: a blistering insight into the dysfunctional dynamics of some whitefellas in remote Aboriginal communities.

The artistic revival at Papunya Tjupi Arts is another article by Kim Mahoud in The Monthly, October 2018 traces new developments in the community that started the Western Desert art movement in the early 1970s, including a move away from a restricted colour palette.

RAFT Artspace
Founded in Darwin in 2001 by Dallas Gold, RAFT presented more than 150 exhibitions there, before relocating in 2010 to Alice Springs.


Contemporary Aboriginal art is a powerful part of Aboriginal life and culture. But behind the artists lies a network of Western managers, dealers, critics, curators and collaborators. Heart of Artness features the voices of Aboriginal artists from remote and urbanAustralia and investigates their significant relationships with white folk.

Listen to the trailer for the podcast series

Episode 4: Meet the Matrix

Dallas Gold, founder of RAFT Artspace, with a painting by Yolgnu artist Nongirrnga Marawili.

Among the myriad folk who orbit remote Aboriginal art centres:

Jeremy Cloake is a New Zealander of Maori/Irish heritage. He’s also an expert on playing the yidaki, the Yolngu name for didgeridoo. He spends months every year at Yirrkala, working in the art centre in diverse roles.

Dallas Gold was a chef before he studied art. He’s met collectors who are ‘hooked on Aboriginal art’. As a dealer, he shares their passion, ‘pushing art’ to the outside world. His gallery, RAFT, showcases difference. In an update, Dallas tells us that the exhibition with Peter Adsett he refers to was not an actual RAFT event, but a precursor. The first RAFT exhibition (2001) was Four Men, Four Paintings, with Rusty Peters, Freddie Timms, Paddy Bedford & Ramey Ramsey. Details here.

Joseph Brady is a multi-media artist from Melbourne. Now he and his family live in the remote Aboriginal community at Yirrkala, where he is the program director at the Mulka Project, the museum and digital production part of the art centre. Joseph makes audio and visual recordings of Yolngu ceremonies, or Bungul, such as initiations and funerals. The recordings are archived to preserve culture, but they are also popular viewing with family members: “The drama and highlights of ceremony are well worth re-visiting… the same way you  might re-watch a wedding video.”

Listen to Episode 4