“For me, Bell and Douglas’s painting connects the Aboriginal experience with the African-American fight for rights and recognition. In re-creating a seminal moment from Australia’s history, they remind us of the ongoing need for social and political change.”
– Alice-Anne Psaltis, Public Programs Officer, UQ Art Museum
About the artwork
American Emory Douglas joined the Black Panther Party in 1967, and through his revolutionary posters and Black Panther illustrations was actively involved in creating and circulating the Party’s doctrines and ideas.1 In Australia, Richard Bell participated in protests in Redfern and South Brisbane, and had contact with Black Power leaders, including Gary Foley, Denis Walker and Sam Watson, which led to his commitment to the path of political activism.2 These personal histories inform Foley Vs the Springboks (Green) (2014), which captures an iconic moment from Australian history. The moment depicted occurred during the 1971 South African Springbok rugby tour, during which anti-apartheid supporters from around Australia protested against South Africa’s racist politics and their human rights record. With poverty, racism and political powerlessness still affecting Indigenous communities, Aboriginal activists challenged white protestors to recognise and support the fight for land rights and self-determination on Australian soil.3 In a pivotal moment during a demonstration, which took place outside the Springbok’s hotel in Sydney, activist Gary Foley was photographed holding the placard shown in the painting. By reproducing these ironic and resonant words, Bell and Douglas bring Foley’s experiences into the present, highlighting their continued relevance.
Significantly, both artists have retained their individual styles, while achieving a cohesive collaborative statement. The bold black lines that Douglas has used to render Foley’s figure make him appear larger than life. This graphic style is superimposed onto Bell’s startling background made up of his signature ‘brain scan’ imagery, and painted in the green and gold colours of the Springboks. The artists have combined their shared activist strategies, which utilise the languages of commercial art and advertising, to embed their message within the image. They employ visual devices that direct the viewer’s attention towards the white placard held by Foley. These include reducing their choice of colours to four – a tactic identified by the propagandist and father of public relations Edward Bernays and ‘used by activists, dissidents, and revolutionaries’ to sell ideas as if they were consumables 4 – as well as Bell’s swirling lines and indecipherable text. The placard message itself is cut short, only registering the top half of the world ‘racist.’ In leaving the viewer to decipher its content, Bell and Douglas perhaps ask us to think about whether the statement remains a reality.
As Gary Foley remarked in the exhibition catalogue for Edge of elsewhere, Bell and Douglas’s collaborative practice reveals a new way for these artists to continue their fight for the social and political principles they have ‘negotiated, lived and practiced all their lives.’5 Foley Vs the Springboks references an important moment in Australian history when the struggle for equality crossed global borders. This is where the significance of Bell and Douglas’s international partnership lies – in its power to create a visual dialogue between the Indigenous struggle for land rights and self-determination, and the African-American fight for Civil Rights.
About the artists
Australian Richard Bell and American Emory Douglas each established significant careers independently before entering into their artistic partnership. Bell’s Indigenous heritage informs his practice, which he uses to make provocative statements concerning Australian race relations. From the late 1960s, Douglas was the Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the American Black Panther Party (1967–1980). Today, he continues to explore issues of race and politics through his graphic protest art. During the 16th Biennale of Sydney: Revolutions – Forms that Turn (2008), Bell and Douglas’s artworks were displayed side-by-side, leading the two to enter into a profound engagement. The discussion that ensued moved backwards and forwards through time and across geographic borders, navigated through their artworks. In 2009, this artistic relationship was cemented when their works were once again brought together in the exhibition All power to the people, at Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Bell and Douglas have collaborated on a number of artworks that have appeared in various exhibitions.
Adapted from text by Alice-Anne Psaltis, June 2015.
1. Sam Durant, “Introduction,” in Black Panther: The revolutionary art of Emory Douglas, ed. Sam Durant (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), 21.
2. Maura Reilly, “We were here first: An interview with Richard Bell,” in Richard Bell: Uz vs. them, ed. Maura Reilly (New York: American Federation of Arts, 2011), 12.
3. Gary Foley, “Black Power in Redfern 1968–1972,” in There goes the neighbourhood: Redfern and the politics of urban space, ed. Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza (Sydney: Performance Space, 2009), 16-17.
4. Daniel Browning, “Decolonising now: The activism of Richard Bell,” in Richard Bell: Lessons on etiquette and manners, ed. Max Delany (Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art, 2013), 23.
5. Gary Foley, “Richard Bell: Cultural warrior and cosmic avenger,” in Edge of elsewhere, ed. Michael Dagostino (Sydney: Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2014), 35.