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You Can Go Now

This powerful documentary about Richard Bell’s art and activism is an essential new Australian must-see.
By Sarah Ward
January 25, 2023
By Sarah Ward
January 25, 2023

Who better than frank, lively and charismatic First Nations artist Richard Bell to sum up what You Can Go Now is truly about: "I am an activist masquerading as an artist," he offers. The Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang man says this early in Larissa Behrendt's documentary about him, because he and the Eualayai/Gamillaroi After the Apology and Araatika: Rise Up! filmmaker both know how essential and inescapable that truth is. They're not here to reveal that Bell's art is layered with statements. Neither is the feature itself. Rather, in a powerful instant must-see of an Australian doco, they explore and contextualise what it means for Bell to be an activist spreading his advocacy for the country's First Peoples around the world by being an artist, especially when the Aboriginal art realm is so often dominated by white interests. They address and examine not just what Bell's work says but why, what it responds to and how it's significant on a variety of levels, including diving deep into the personal, national and global history — and modern-day reality — informing it.

Seeing what Bell's art literally expresses — simply taking it in, as splashed across the screen instead of hanging in a gallery — is still crucial to Behrendt's film, of course. In an array of pieces that frequently use heated words on intricately and colourfully painted canvases, his work utters plenty. "I am not sorry". "Give it all back." "We were here first." "Ask us what we want". "Aboriginal art — it's a white thing." Among these and other declarations, You Can Go Now's title gets a mention, too. Every piece sighted — works that riff on and continue a dialogue with styles synonymous with American artists Roy Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollock among them — conveys Bell's activist-artist raison d'être overtly, unflinchingly and unmistakably. Excellent art doesn't end conversations, however, but continues them, pushes them further and prompts more questions. Not that this is You Can Go Now's main takeaway, but Bell makes excellent art, with Behrendt helping to fuel and unpack the discussion.

It's impossible to peer at Bell's work without feeling its anger and frustration, sharing that ire and exasperation as well, and wanting a great many things — more details about his creations, the fair and just treatment of Indigenous Australians that should already be a given anyway, and to live in a world where the nation's traumatic past isn't what it is, for starters. It's also impossible to watch Behrendt's unfurling of the circumstances behind the artist's art, which intertwines Bell's own story, Australia since British colonisation and the fight against racial oppression globally, without appreciating the immense importance of his work. He boasts accolades and international acclaim, but nothing cements the potency of Bell's efforts like Bell. Hearing him talk about his childhood, then witnessing what those formative experiences have inspired: it's what this doco thrives on.

So it is that You Can Go Now listens to Bell describe growing up in a tin shack in central Queensland, where he lived until he was a teen, only for it to be bulldozed by the government eight months after the 1967 referendum recognising Indigenous Australians as citizens. In tandem, the movie watches him recreate such a shanty, run it down, film it and play that video piece in another tin shed installed at the Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea in Turin in Italy. With a broader view, You Can Go Now enjoys Bell's paintings of key images from the fights for rights at home and in the US, then shows the photographs that Bell draws upon. And, it steps through the history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as a protest, plus Bell's replica Embassy — which has been displaying and hosting chats in Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Cairns, Moscow, Jakarta, New York, Venice, Kassel in Germany and more, and adds London's famed Tate Modern to its stops in 2023.

Also filling this deftly penned, directed, shot (by The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone's Vincent Lamberti) and edited (by 2040's Jane Usher) film: addresses by the infectiously engaging Bell to camera, letting his playful but determined personality shine; text on-screen to emphasise the most pressing takeaways in his monologues; a cast of talking-head interviewees, spanning everyone from his Brisbane gallerist Josh Milani to friend and activist Gary Foley, plus current Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney; and a wealth of archival footage. Behrendt's approach is straightforward, but made dynamic and gripping through her subject, his story, the history behind both and the snippets focused on. And while Bell is an executive producer, ensuring this is his vision of himself, that doesn't make the end result any less thoughtful, passionate or compelling.

In the feature's big picture, a portrait emerges of First Nations activism spread across half a century, both heartbreakingly and vitally so. In its Bell-centric guise, so too does a chronicle of activism channelled into his art to keep agitating for change, recognition and a better future. You Can Go Now's snapshot of both is thorough, so much so that it adds another want to its audience's list: wanting more time to sift through it all, something that no lone 82-minute documentary can deliver. Thankfully, this movie has company elsewhere in fellow docos such as Firestarter — The Story of Bangarra and Wash My Soul in the River's Flow. The former hones in on the pioneering and applauded Indigenous dance theatre, the latter on iconic musicians Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach, and both also survey Australia's attitudes towards its Traditional Owners, the creativity such a history has sparked, and how those resulting works are pieces of activism through and through.

Indeed, You Can Go Now slides into stellar company, and into an expanding group of Aussie documentaries that will never lose their urgency as similar flicks keep emerging. Not that they can't stand alone, or don't, but You Can Go Now and its cohort actually gain strength from the fact that they're relaying a common tale. The impact of Australia's colonisation, and the prejudice and persecution that has followed, is vast. It always requires constant interrogation and confrontation. Across a life that's traversed gaining a political voice on Redfern's streets, working for the Aboriginal Legal Service, winning the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, and gatecrashing the 2019 Venice Biennale, too, Bell knows this — and so does this filmic tribute.

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