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You Can Go Now, the Richard Bell Documentary

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Radical First Nation's artist Richard
Richard Bell and his Aboriginal Embassy installation

Director Larissa Behrendt knows a good subject when she sees one. For her documentaryYou Can Go Now she landed on Richard Bell, one of our country’s most political artists. This guy is, in the words of one of the film’s interviewees, “gangsta as fuck”. When he got knocked back for the Venice Biennale, he gate crashed it.

In 2022, the Bangalow Film Festival invited me to introduce You Can Go Now and I did some investigation into Bell's past. I'd interviewed him when I was working as an arts reporter for ABC TV and found him to be one of the most charming and disarming characters I’d ever meet. And the power of his work hit me in the face like a wet mullet.

Bell grew up in a shanty town in Charleville, Queensland that was bulldozed when he was just 14. He later moved to Redfern, Sydney and got deeply politicised. He joined rallies for land rights and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra but as he says, he could do equally radical stuff in his art practice and not get arrested.

So he turned his protest into art and went hard. Over the past few years he’s erected replica Aboriginal tent embassies outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Art Fair in Kassel, and also in New York and the Netherlands. It’s an installation/talkfest that invites discussion about the pressing issue of Black Sovereignty.

The film contains some fabulous archival footage and is another triumph for Behrendt who also produced ‘In My Blood It Runs’ , which won the ACCTA award for Best Documentary in 2019. That film followed a gifted 10 year old First Nations boy, Dujuan Hoosan, as he struggled to get his head around what he was being taught about the history of Australia at his school in Alice Springs. Two year later Dujuan became the youngest person to address the UN human rights council in Geneva, speaking about the inequalities in the Australian education system.

Behrendt is a distinguished professor at UTS and I had the very great pleasure of getting to know her when we were both serving on the board of the Sydney Festival. She hosts Speaking Out on ABC Radio where she amplifies black voices and ideas. She obviously loves Bell's relentlessly confronting and often hilarious ones.

Using text on canvas he declares; "Aboriginal Art - It’s a white thing", taking aim at the indigenous art industry that can sometimes be exploitative.

Back when the original Yirrabana Gallery at the AGNSW opened, curator Hetti Perkins spoke determinedly about viewing aboriginal art as not “traditional” or “anthropological” but as the most sophisticated contemporary art movement the world had ever witnessed.

You Can Go Now is both the title of the doco and its message. It's a cheeky invitation to literally pack up and leave this country. But with the Referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament looming, our black brothers and sisters need us to stand with them at this moment in time, just like white settlers did in the referendum of 1967.

We hear a lot about decolonising our minds, and indigenifying our country. You Can Go Now, the Richard Bell documentary is a great tool to help us whitefellas in that process.


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