Sydney Biennale takes on race issues with tent embassy

Richard Bell’s homage to the 1972 Aboriginal protest site will host speakers from black activist groups


The Australian indigenous artist Richard Bell will set up his travelling Tent Embassy and invite international black activists to speak to the public as part of the 2016 Biennale of Sydney (18 March-5 June 2016).

The mobile art installation has popped up in many forms, most recently as a collection of flags and banners outside of the Australian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The piece comes to New York next week as part of the Performa festival, where it will be set up on the corner of Broadway and Leonard Street.

Bell, an agent provocateur who inspires both affectionate regard and mosquito-like irritation in his hometown of Sydney, told The Art Newspaper that his Embassy will occupy the lawn in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. This is the same spot in Sydney Harbour where British ships disembarked their first load of colonists and convicts in 1788.

Bell said he has already lined up speakers, including activists from the Black Panther Party, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. “Emory Douglas from San Francisco, the [former] minister of culture in the Black Panther Party, will definitely be here,” Bell said. Gary Foley, a veteran warrior for black rights in Australia who helped set up the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy 40 years ago, will also speak.

In 1972, four Aboriginal activists set up a beach umbrella in front of the Australian parliament in Canberra and called it an embassy to represent a misplaced nation. The structure grew, and has largely remained on the site ever since, despite temporary removals and attacks of vandalism and arson. It is now heritage listed.

Bell, who started his own embassy in 2013 with a beach umbrella as homage to the original, said topics to be discussed would include the high rates of suicide among Aboriginal Australians and recent government threats to close some indigenous communities in the Outback. “Many of these art events tend to overlook the local content. I am going to bring as much local content to this party as I can,” Bell said.

The artist stressed that black issues are universal. “Whatever they do to us, they do to you,” he said, comparing the intervention into indigenous communities to recent alcohol restrictions in the Sydney central business district. Bell sees his Embassy as a way to “encourage solidarity”.

Bell’s work also fits in with the “embassies of thought” that are central to the artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal’s curatorial vision for the Sydney Biennale. Organised around the theme The Future is Already Here—It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed, the Biennale will present exhibitions in six main venues (plus a bookshop), including the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Cockatoo Island. Rosenthal, who is the chief curator at the Hayward Gallery in London, aims for these spaces to serve as temporary “embassies” where ideas can be sampled. Other artist in the Biennale included Heman Chong, FX Harsono, Bharti Kher, Lee Bul, Lee Mingwei, Sheila Hicks, Chiharu Shiota, Charwei Tsai and Xu Chen.