Australian artist and political activist Richard Bell was born in 1953 in Charleville, Queensland and currently lives in Brisbane. He is a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang-Gurang nations. Bell works across a variety of media including painting, installation, performance and video to address the politics of Aboriginal land rights and identity. He often challenges our preconceived ideas of Aboriginal art and culture by combining western art styles with traditional Aboriginal designs and symbols.

Bell’s painting The Sign Says It is a powerful image depicting a group of Aboriginal men walking forward; two of them hold a placard with the words “ASK – US – WHAT – WE WANT”. This painting is based on a historical black and white photograph taken at a protest march in Darwin in the late 1960s. Gurindji people travelled from Wave Hill in the Northern Territory, 600km south of Darwin, to demonstrate against a Bill before the Northern Territory Parliament, which would lead, if not passed, to a loss of Aboriginal reserve land. The high key colours used by Bell transform the monochrome newspaper photograph into a striking image of protest and power

The men holding the placards in Bell’s painting are Aboriginal activists Tom Thompson, Clancy Roberts and Davis Daniels. Each had their own experience of injustice and, alongside their brothers Dexter Davis and Jacob and Phillip Roberts, were involved in the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights during the 1960s. The Davis and Roberts brothers brought ideas forward about improved living standards, equal pay and full control and ownership of reserves for Aboriginal people. Together with Vincent Lingiari who was a member of the Gurindji people and an Aboriginal land rights leader, Dexter Davis brought public attention to land rights and self-determination for the Aboriginal people on Wave Hill.

TIP For more information on the Wave Hill walk off and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 see the interpretive resource on Mervyn Bishop.

Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 6 History

Experiences of Australian democracy and citizenship, including the status and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, migrants, women and children (ACHASSK135)

  • Research the protests that occurred at Wave Hill. What were the people at Wave Hill protesting about? Describe their aims, strategies and outcomes. Investigate other significant moments in Australian history in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have struggled for their rights.
  • Investigate other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander role models or activists who have influenced the next generation of Australian youth. Cathy Freeman, Adam Goodes, Eddie Mabo, Archie Roach and David Unaipon are just a few. Create a portrait using a multi-layered stencil of your chosen role model or activist that celebrates their achievements.
  • Protesting can increase visibility of a cause, demonstrate power, build relationships and energize participants. Identify some protests that have happened in Australia or elsewhere in the world. What were the outcomes of these protests?
  • Name something you would like to protest about.
  • Bell has transformed a newspaper image by replacing black and white with bright primary colours. Why do you think Bell changed the image in this way?
  • Investigate the photograph Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional owner Vincent Lingiari by Mervyn Bishop. How is this image connected to Bell’s painting?
  • Bell began as an activist, before realising his ideas would reach a bigger audience and have greater power, through art. Similarly, Reko Rennie left journalism to pursue art as he too felt he would have more power as an artist than as a journalist. Compare both artists’ work in relation to these statements. What power have these artists gained by sharing their art with a wide audience?

Photo: Art Gallery of South Australia; photo: Saul Steed.

Using works of art in the collection discuss how artists have responded to the history of Aboriginal people’s rights and freedoms post 1950.

The Sign Says It was based on a historical black and white photograph taken at a protest in Darwin in 1960s. Locate an iconic image captured from a moment in Australia’s history. Using Photoshop transform this photograph into a striking image that includes a bright colour palette.