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A beach chair, a parasol and a fake grass tapestry: together these objects formed the centrepiece of Richard Bell’s solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA), brought in by the man who calls himself ‘an activist masquerading as an artist’.1 As cultural ambassador Bell occupied the SMBA territory with his Aboriginal Tent Embassy2 that functioned as a Trojan horse filled with a diverse group of local artists, student-activists and Hip Hop dancers. In the gallery, these local constituencies started to (de)colonise the white cube with their collectively produced series of political murals, discussion groups and a Hip Hop dance jam.
The key question posed by ‘BELL invites’ was ‘How to be relevant?’, and it examined how Bell, as an Aboriginal artist and member of the Black Power Movement, could be relevant in the specific context of Amsterdam. In order to find an answer to this complex question Bell invited his long-term collaborator Emory Douglas,3 the local communities of the University of Colour4 and the HipHopHuis,5 to develop the project with him. He transformed the SMBA gallery space into an embassy for the arts and culture of these communities which have remained absent for decades from the white spaces of art institutions. Local artists Brian Elstak, Farida Sedoc (Hosselaer), Super Funk and 020 Crew were invited to present their work in the institutional context of the SMBA. Through this invitation Bell acknowledged the existence of a plurality of art worlds, while asking to what extent ‘the global’ and the performances of local communities are represented in the mainstream art world?
‘An ongoing cultural and political workshop’ is how curator Vivian Ziherl defined the project, an example of ‘institutions doing the cultural work that is so desperately needed’.6 Bell and Douglas set up a painting workshop with Elstak, which aimed to develop a ‘parallel radical black history and imagery’ in the form of murals.7 Members of the University of Colour formed the core group of participants in the workshop: ‘As a community of people from different ethnic backgrounds we came together and created art that speaks to us, about the things that we go through in everyday life’.8 The process of creating the murals together with Bell and Douglas, as Black Power veterans, worked as a powerful tool for participants to make their experiences of oppression visible and to talk back to the systems of social and political oppression.
During the workshop the white walls of the gallery space were transformed into colourful and compelling images that brought a message: ‘Keep your white tears, we want decolonisation’, and ‘Thank God I’m not a refugee’. Bell and Douglas were quite clear about the role of art: ‘Art is to inform and to enlighten. … Art should be political and speak to the people’.9 ‘BELL invites’ mobilised art in all its forms to carry this message to the people. Bell’s artistic body of work got a whole new meaning through its juxtaposition with Elstak’s comic-inspired mural designs, the Hip Hop dance performances, and Sedoc’s textile works and t-shirt designs with messages like ‘Fuck the police’ in Arabic script, an ‘Allochtonen’ news print, and ‘Power to the People’.
This same spirit was carried through to the ‘Global Performance’ symposium that took place at the Stedelijk Museum. For one afternoon this temple of contemporary art was transformed into a discussion platform or cypher in which an engaged, outspoken and critical audience was able to represent itself. Many people used the open microphone to express their critique of the museum and its (ir)relevance. The heated but much needed debate made a clear judgement: ‘We do not need the museum to show our art’.10
However, six weeks later, the event Blikopeners x HIPHOP took place at the Stedelijk Museum,11 inviting artists from the symposium to represent the Amsterdam Hip Hop scene. Inspired by ‘BELL invites’ the event injected the Hip Hop spirit into the white spaces of the Stedelijk Museum, transforming this temple of contemporary art—at least for one evening—into a temple of Hip Hop. An overwhelming number of seven hundred visitors12 took part in the event, enjoying the fact that their arts and culture were represented in the museum spaces: ‘This evening showed the full potential of what the white cube can be’.13
This Hip Hop spirit was carried back to the SMBA where the finissage of ‘BELL invites’ took place the next day. Super Funk14 and the University of Colour set the exhibition space on fire, transforming it into a dance and discussion cypher. This cypher became a shared space of relationality and community, where people could freely express themselves both verbally and physically—dancing, glowing and growing together. This event emphasised the importance of embodiment, coming together and sharing an experience in the processes of social change and transformation for which ‘BELL invites’ aimed. ‘Coming together as a community, dancing and discussing, that is what this society and this city desperately needs. Dancing to James Brown, that is the future!’15
One of the most profound and impressive achievements of the ‘BELL invites’ project was how it made art institutions relevant for the audiences that they hardly ever address. Bell’s and Douglas’s presence as artist-activists of the Black Power Movements mobilised and empowered people to claim the institutional spaces from which they have been excluded and to represent their arts, culture and experiences at the SMBA and Stedelijk Museum. Its collaboration with the University of Colour and Hip Hop communities radically turned the institutional art world and its hierarchies, temporarily, upside down, redistributing the power of representation. The large numbers who became participants of ‘BELL invites’ through Bell’s invitation proved its relevance and the potential social function of contemporary art. This spirit of Bell’s artistic body of work and the ‘BELL invites’ project is now embodied by its participants and will surely keep on resonating throughout the artistic and curatorial bodies of work that it inspired—all power to the people!
BELL invites, 2016. Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. Installation view. Photograph Ernst van Deursen.
Gery Mendes. Performance at opening of BELL invites, 2016. Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. Photograph TARONA.
Amenti Collective, 2016. Performance. BLIKOPENERS x HIPHOP. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photograph Stacii Samidin.
Performance by 020 Crew. Symposium 'BELL invites: Global Performance’. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 2016. Photograph Ernst van Deursen.
1. SMBA is the satellite project space of the Stedelijk Museum.
2. The original Aboriginal Tent Embassy was set up in 1972 as part of the political battles around the issue of Land Rights in Australia. The embassy was positioned in front of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, where it exists up to today. Historians regard it now as the most successful act of Aboriginal political resistance of the twentieth century. Since 2013 Richard Bell has been using his Aboriginal Tent Embassy as a nomadic cultural embassy with which he travels around the world to put up spaces of cultural sovereignty within museums and gallery spaces.
3. Emory Douglas is the former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party.
4. A grassroots organisation of students and activists that arose from the student protests at the University of Amsterdam concerned with ‘decolonising the university’.
5. The Rotterdam-based HipHopHuis is a cultural institution for Hip Hop culture.
6. Vivian Ziherl in conversation with the author.
7. Vivian Ziherl in conversation with the author.
8. Reaction of one of the participants of the University of Colour.
9. Emory Douglas in Bell Invites: ‘Kunst om te informeren en te verlichten’. See http://socialisme.nu/blog/nieuws/48845/bell-invites-kunst-om-te-informeren-en-te-verlichten/ (translation by the author).
10. Reaction of one of the participating artists.
11. This was a co-production of the Blikopeners (the young peer-group of the Stedelijk Museum) and ‘BELL invites’ co-curator Aruna Vermeulen, director of the HipHopHuis.
12. Blikopeners x HIPHOP was the most visited event of the Stedelijk Museum besides the annual Museumnacht. The evening attracted a young and cultural diverse audience to the museum—a group that is hardly ever addressed by museums.
13. Reaction of one of the participants.
14.Super Funk is a platform for the Street Art, Dance and Hip Hop community in Amsterdam.
15. Reaction of one of the participants.