During the 20th Biennale of Sydney, Richard Bell's 'Embassy’ restages the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of the MCA, providing a space for debate, public conversation and screenings.
Richard Bell

13 May 2016 - 4:24 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2016 - 4:33 PM

“The Aboriginal Embassy was the most effective political action in the history of the Aboriginal struggle”. Gary Foley.

The second decade of the 21st Century arrived in Australia with the vast majority of the country’s population blissfully unaware of the issue of Sovereignty. And, more especially, Aboriginal Sovereignty.

In August, 2010, after almost a year in New York I’m back in Oz to find vigourous discussions among Aboriginal people about Sovereignty. Yet, just months earlier, at the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples I had had discussions with some young attendees and we lamented the fact that, historically, Sovereignty had never been allowed on the table in discussions with Australian Governments.

I wondered about this surge of interest in Aboriginal Sovereignty in my country. How deep was the interest? How deep was the inquiry? How deeply into our communities was this issue reaching?

It was very pleasing to me that during the following year much of the discussion began to occur much more regularly, mostly on the Internet. Indeed a movement began to emerge and take shape that was tentatively called the Sovereign Movement. One of the key people driving this was Michael Anderson, the last surviving member of the original 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. The natives were restless, it was needless to say. Many of my generation have been critical of those who have followed us. Finally, here was the new generation developing its strategies and taking their place through online discussions, planning and participating in demonstrations and establishing Aboriginal Tent Embassies right across the country.

The rumblings of discontent were being felt Globally with the Occupy Wall Street and Idle No More movements in 2011 and 2012. The Sovereignty Movement had predated both these International movements but what struck me about their movement was their use of tent embassies. I have been a long-term admirer of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as a means of protest. To see it popularised and utilised by this generation drew me to look more closely at it. I concluded that the concept of Aboriginal people needing an Embassy in our own country was genius and an assertion of our Sovereignty. The fact that it was to be a tent embassy that was almost instantly replaceable was also genius. That the first tent embassy was a beach umbrella? Gold!! There is, literally, symbolic overload within that whole event, which is why the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy made the news in 82 countries. It was then that I decided to develop an artistic response that would pay homage and respect to all those involved in that momentous event.

The first time I produced a tent Embassy installation was at Monash University Museum of Art, in 2013, as part of my exhibition Lessons in Etiquette and Manners. In keeping with tradition, that also featured a beach umbrella. Since then, I have installed installations in the Moscow Biennale, the Perth Institute for Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Performa15 in New York, the Jakarta Biennale, the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, the Centre for Contemporary Art South Australia in Adelaide and the Sydney Biennale. Each of them have been very different, but powerful. I am looking forward to taking the embassy to the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in July this year and also to Jerusalem next year. I look forward to working with legendary actor/activist, Professor Gary Foley into the future. He has been a source of inspiration as well as a fount of knowledge for this and other projects.

In closing, I had overlooked the fact that my first institutional exhibition, at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane in 1992, featured a room from an imaginary Aboriginal Embassy.

EMBASSY, by Richard Bell is presented as part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney

Invited Program Curators (12-14 May)

  • Lorna Munro & Merindah Donnelly

Richard Bell’s Embassy opening hours

  • Thur 12 May, 5.30 – 9pm 
  • Fri 13 May, 11.30am – 5pm
  • Sat 14 & Sun 15 May, 11.30am – 4pm* 

MCA Forecourt

Program Schedule

*Please note times may vary

Thur 12 May, 5.30 – 8pm

  • 5.30 – 6.30pm, Next Generation Speaks: Lorna Munro speaks with children from Redfern and Waterloo about their experience with the recent Redfern Tent Embassy
  • 7 – 9pm, MC's Felon and Provocalz with support acts

Fri 13 May, 11.30am – 3pm

  • 11.30am – 2pm, Weaving with Tjanara Talbot
  • 12 – 1pm, Social Media discussion: The evolution of activism with Luke Pearson (IndigenousX)
  • 1 – 2pm, In conversation with Richard Bell & students from NAISDA
  • 1 – 3pm, Protest placard making workshop
  • 2- 2.30pm, Key note speech with Nakkiah Lui Anti fascism and the role of artist as activist
  • 2 – 3pm, Black experience tour speeches with Ken Kanning, Angeline Penrith & Jenny Munro
  • 3 – 5pm Black experience tour: walk from MCA to Parliament House, leaving the MCAForecourt at 3pm. (Please note this tour will be photographed) 

Sat 14 May, 11.30am – 4pm

  • 11.30am – 3pm, Weaving with Tjanara Talbot 
  • 1 – 2pm, Film program and discussion: Cope Street Collective 
  • 2 – 3pm, Aceh Dance workshop with Suara Indonesian Dance Group
  • 3 – 4pm, Music & Performance with Eric Avery & friends 

Sun 15 May, 11.30am – 4pm

  • 11.30am – 12pm, Dance Performance 
  • 12 – 1pm, Film program and discussion: Cope Street Collective 
  • 12 – 2pm, Women of the Tent Embassy discussion with Angeline Penrith, Bronwyn Penrith & Jenny Munro 
  • 2-4pm, Performed exerts from the Fox and the Freedom Fighters with Nadeena Dixon Grovenor & Rhonda Dixon 

This edition of the Biennale of Sydney is structured around thematic clusters, conceived as 'embassies’, with each venue providing constellations of thought. The MCA is transformed into the Embassy of Translation bringing together selection a selection of works by artists that consider history as one material among others.

On 15-19 March, Richard Bell’s 'Embassy’ was presented on the MCA Forecourt by and for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, with the assistance of the MCA. The artist restaged and paid homage to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – the world’s longest running ongoing protest that was assembled by activists on the lawn of Australia’s Parliament House in 1972 – providing a space for debate, public conversation and screenings.

The MCA firmly believes exhibitions provide a platform for artistic debate and supports the right of artists to voice independent views and contribute freely to discussions of wider political significance.

The MCA is looking forward to welcoming Richard Bell’s 'Embassy’ back again on May 12-15, and engaging a wide range of audiences with his work.

Richard Bell often describes himself as ‘an activist masquerading as an artist’. During the 20th Biennale of Sydney, he restages the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of the MCA, providing a space for debate, public conversation and screenings.