Richard Bell: 'This Documenta Riot Is Islamophobia'

‘What is happening now at the Documenta in Kassel is not anti-Semitism but Islamophobia,’ says the Australian artist Richard Bell (1953). He is in Eindhoven for a few days for the opening of Cross connection: Richard Bell in the Van Abbe Museum. It is his first solo exhibition in Europe, albeit on a small scale. In addition to a few paintings, the exhibition also includes a film in which he talks about the lack of rights for Aboriginal people from the ruins of his childhood home in Charleville, Queensland. His message emphasizes that he is standing on the remains of the house that the government demolished without offering the family an alternative.

If you want to see more of Bell’s work, you can go to Documentation 15 where paintings and a sculpture can be seen in the Fridericianum. He also placed an ‘Aboriginal Embassy’ on the large square in Kassel. In that tent conversations are held and films are shown about how the rights of Aboriginals have always been violated.

After Eindhoven he returns to Kassel and wants to stay there “as long as I am allowed”. The fear that stems from this is because it has been suggested in German media that this Documenta edition should be closed, as the whole event would be anti-Semitic.


That last week the meter-sized triptych People’s Justice The unrest has not been removed from the Indonesian underground collective Taring Padi – about the victims of the dictatorship under President Suharto, on which an Israeli soldier with a pig’s head is depicted. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced that he will not visit Documenta for the first time in thirty years. Requests for the resignation of Documenta’s management were asked from various quarters. What of the mirror This does not go far enough: politicians’ heads must also roll in Berlin – the resignation of State Minister of Culture Claudia Roth is only logical, according to the weekly: “Inviting the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa must have consequences up to the highest level. .”

Also read: What makes this Documenta so different, so revolutionary?

This edition of Documenta is about the perspective of the Southern Hemisphere and the Middle East, the downsides of capitalism, power and racism. The power of the collective plays a greater role than the individual ‘genius’. It is wry that this Documenta arouses so much resistance. Richard Bell: “If this Indonesian collective had not been asked to put together Documenta, we would not have been able to show our work. Western curators never invited us. The reactions that are now coming say a lot about Germany. Worldwide, many works are racist, anti-Asian, misogynistic. They are tolerated everywhere and nobody takes offense. If you reason from anti-Semitism, you also have to mention misogynistic and racism. And if you are consistent, you should also remove those works from museums. But that is not possible, because then it will become very empty in some museums.”

Richard Bell Photo Merlin Daleman
Richard Bell Photo Merlin Daleman
Richard Bell Photo Merlin Daleman

Bell works from the art collective founded in 2004 ProppaNow in Brisbane, Australia. “We focus on rights for Aboriginal people. None of us have land rights. Australia is Aboriginal country, always was and always will be. That is what my work is all about.”

Bell’s work contains clear political messages. His paintings depict protesters holding protest signs with slogans such as ‘We Want Land, Not Handouts’ or ‘I Am a Man’. He discusses (land) rights for Aboriginal people and the consequences of capitalism on both the geopolitical level, but also on the art market. The latter can be found, for example, in the work with the slogan: ‘Aboriginal Art, It’s a White Thing’. He thus indicates that Aboriginal art is eagerly sold, but is still approached from a European perspective and that Aboriginal artists have no self-determination about it. “Like a greedy artist, Western art willingly devours whatever sacrifices come its way,” Bell wrote in his essay Bell’s Theorem

The fact that art collectives are central to the Documenta is extremely important to him. “The collective is the foundation of art, both past and present. Take the Impressionists: they too were a collective. The fact that in the West generally little attention is paid to the collective is because artists are capitalists. Capitalism requires a more individual approach. In a collective it is about greater interests, and about conveying a message.”

It was all about the message for Bell from the very beginning he became an artist. “I started out as an activist, but art was a means of saying things without getting arrested. You can stretch boundaries with art. That is also what is happening at the Documenta: there you can experience what it is like to work as part of a collective. The art is not only focused on the visual, but also on participating.”

Capitalist swine

Also read: 9 Tips: What not to miss at Documenta 15?

The reactions to the Documenta not only worry him, but he also finds them typical: “We can often identify with art. We see a world we are used to, or friends, family, community in art. When I look at American or European art, that doesn’t apply to me. I don’t recognize myself in what is depicted. At the Documenta it is now the other way around, where visitors have to be prepared to see and experience things they do not recognize, they have to use their imagination. What happens to the visitor is what we have always done, all these years: to relate to art that does not correspond to our experience.”

Bell does offer a little western help at the Documenta. One work of art refers emphatically to the 1917 urinal attributed to Marcel Duchamp and signed R. Mutt. Bell signed his urinal with R. Bell, and added balloons to it. One of them is a pig. “This balloon urinal shows Western art: inflated, exaggerated and shiny, with the pig representing the capitalist swine that runs the art market.”

Bell’s 2002 essay has since been updated, but he hasn’t become much more optimistic. There have been changes when it comes to Aboriginal rights in Australia, but whether they are for the better is the question Bell asks. There is little hope that Australia’s Aborigines will ever regain control of much of their culture. †there’s no hope‘, he concluded his essay in 2002. In the updated version for the Van Abbemuseum, he makes a small adjustment: ‘hope less. do more† For example, he indicates that art can lead to change: “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t make art,” he says with a laugh. “It just takes time. Change doesn’t just happen. We can wait, we are Aboriginal people, we know how to wait.”

Cross connection: Richard Bell is until 4/9 in the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. The Documenta will last until 9/25.

Leave a Reply