The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was first set up in 1972, when four Aboriginal activists—Bertie Williams, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Michael Anderson—planted a sun umbrella and some placards on the lawns of Australia’s Parliament House, to stage a protest for Aboriginal land rights. The Embassy, later to flower into a gathering of tents, remains in place today as an icon of Aboriginal protest, a meeting-place and, most importantly, a sign of an ongoing, and never ceded, Aboriginal sovereignty.
Richard Bell’s work for Performa 15—part of Performa’s focus on Australian performance art, the ‘Australian Pavilion without Walls’—is a recreation of the Embassy. The work, with recent iterations in Melbourne, Moscow and Venice, was installed in a shop-front in downtown Manhattan; a heavy canvas tent equipped with camp-lights, plastic chairs, placards and a screen. Over its four-day existence, the work hosted a rich program of events: a screening of important (some hard to find) films about 20th century Aboriginal activism and culture, and a number of conversations with Bell himself, art historian Terry Smith, and other important activists and artistic collaborators, including Sylvia McAdam (a nêhiyaw Nation resistance leader), Black Panther artist Emory Douglas, artists Alan Michelson, Tanya Linklater and Duane Linklater (who spoke about art and indigeneity), and members of the Black Lives Matter campaign. The tent also housed Australian artist Stuart Ringholt’s Anger Workshop, an artwork/amateur therapy session in which the artist encouraged participants to scream out their anger, and hug a stranger.
The work’s heterogeneity was not, however, a simple symptom of art’s post-medium condition, but instead a carefully articulated architecture. The film program placed the Embassy within the longer history of Aboriginal activism and Australia colonialism, at the same time carving the outlines of a significant (but to date underexplored) genealogy of Aboriginal activism and film, which stretches from documentary works from the 1960s and 1970s, up to more recent artistic works such as Vernon Ah Kee’s important Tall Man (2013). The discussions positioned the work squarely at the intersection of art and activism, engaging the original Embassy’s twin points of inspiration and ongoing solidarity: indigenous land rights and black activism. Ringholt’s Anger Workshops were a clever inclusion, infusing the work’s historical and political infrastructure with a powerful emotional affect—one that was crafted out of, rather than repressing, the artificiality of the work’s rarefied art-world surroundings.
Indeed, as Ringholt’s work manifested most obviously, the work’s cunning lay in its replication not only of the Embassy’s material components, but also its symbolic attack: its demarcation of an unceded Aboriginal sovereignty in the very language (that of Embassies) of the colonial power that it challenges, and radically undermines. Bell’s Embassy, too, is a work of activism as subversive translation, spoken in the increasingly complex language of the contemporary art world—or what Bell calls, ‘this art caper’. Indeed, Bell’s activist genius is to intervene at precisely the moment in which the very language of the traditionally white, Western-centric art world appears at a point of collapse—the publicity material stumbles under weight of the work’s heterogeneity (it is a, ‘hub’, a ‘confluence’, a ‘platform’, an ‘exhibition space’). Playing out in New York, the work inserts itself into a history of similar strategic interventions that would include Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2013 Gramsci Monument, as well as the tents of the occupy movement.
Bell is an activist-artist well used to speaking in multiple languages, and his work since the early 1990s has insistently goaded the Australian art world into an uncomfortable recognition of its white, patriarchal conditions of possibility. In the past few years, Bell has moved to a larger global stage. And as the global contemporary art world struggles to reconfigure its critical apparatus to encounter work such as Embassy, the artist has already assembled his forces: as the Embassy’s closing discussion, ‘What is the future of solidarity?’, made clear, the work does not end here—this ‘art caper’ is just a means to an end.
Richard Bell’s The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was co-produced by Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.
Nicholas Croggon is an independent arts writer and editor. He is a PhD candidate at Columbia University in New York, and the co-founder and co-editor of the Australia-based contemporary art journal, Discipline.
PERFORMA 15: WRITING LIVE involves an international group of curators, critics, artists and scholars, bringing together a unique mix of different voices in a network of critical writing and debate around Performa 15. Throughout the biennial the participants contribute to an ongoing conversation through a wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary understanding of themes, concepts, and issues of live art and performance with substantial academic and historical consideration. WRITING LIVE is directed by Marc Arthur, and includes PERFORMA15 Writing Live Fellows Nicholas Croggon, Ayanna Dozier, Shelton Lindsay, Andrew Ragni, Macushla Robinson, Leah Werier, and Gillian Young.