single-channel digital video, colour, sound
Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2008
The political struggle between Aboriginal and white Australia is transposed into an inner-city boxing gym in Richard Bell’s video work Uz vs Them. Two men, one a ‘magnificent black hero’ played by the artist, the other ‘an angry white dude’, train for the fight of their lives – a confrontation defending their opposing ideological positions, which for Bell is a ‘fight for Australia’. Bell takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to his subject, posturing in the boxing ring in a natty suit, surrounded by a posse of gyrating blonde women.
His aggressive white opponent, in singlet and boxing gloves, puts all his effort into training, while Bell nonchalantly addresses the camera and states ‘I’m going to teach this guy a lesson … a history lesson’. Assuming the upper hand, Bell taunts his opponent with a number of racist statements, such as ‘the trouble with white people is that they’re lazy … they’re just like children … I’m not racist – some of my best friends are white’. Bell’s reversal of subject positions exposes the embedded prejudices of Australian society. Assured of his own supremacy, he is in control of the ring and comes out of the fight without throwing a punch.
The verbal and physical sparring match in Uz vs Them never takes itself too seriously, although it grapples with serious issues. Bell doesn’t shy away from making confronting works – describing himself as an activist as well as an artist – and Uz vs Them employs his signature biting sarcasm and humour. Using the vernacular language and music of urban Indigenous and popular culture, it reverses power relations to confront Australians about their own position in the history of racial politics in Australia.
This artwork examines and challenges existing sociopolitical power structures. Depicting a cool, calm, collected black man against an angry white villain, it presents no apparent winner.
Richard Bell, 2007
Born 1953, Charleville, Queensland. Lives and works in Brisbane. Kamilaroi people.
Richard Bell is a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities. An activist as much as an artist, Bell works across video, painting, installation and text to pose provocative, complex and humorous challenges to our preconceived ideas of Aboriginal art, as well as addressing contemporary debates surrounding identity, place and politics.
Selected group exhibitions include See You at the Barricades, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2015); Action at a Distance: The Life and Legacy of John Stewart Bell, Naughton Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland (2014); and My Country, I Still Call Australia Home, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (2013).
Solo exhibitions include Richard Bell: Imagining Victory, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo (2015); Embassy, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth (2014); and Imagining Victory, Artspace, Sydney (2013). Uz vs Them, a major touring exhibition of Bell’s work organised by the American Federation of the Arts, premiered at Tufts University, Boston in September 2011 and toured to venues across North America throughout 2013. The exhibition was accompanied by a new publication on Bell’s work. In 2009 an exhibition of Bell’s practice to date, titled I am not sorry, was held at Location One, New York, and Bell was the recipient of Location One’s International Fellowship for that year. In 2006 his work was the subject of the survey exhibition Positivity presented by the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.
Selected group exhibitions include the Asian Art Biennial, Taiwan (2013); Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2013); Half-Light: Portraits from Black Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2008); Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2007); Biennale of Sydney (2008 and 1992); Aratjara: Art of the First Australians (1993); Australian Perspecta, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (1993); and Unfamiliar Territory, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide (1991).
Bell’s work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and state and regional galleries in Australia.Learn more