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A unique and unprecedented collaboration between four galleries in the Hunter region, the Hunter Red suite of exhibitions aims to celebrate the Indigenous culture, social diversity, iconoclastic spirit and creative flamboyance of this growing area of NSW.

Each of the galleries involved is hosting an exhibition devoted to one of these themes, featuring both loaned and newly commissioned pieces that span the whole spectrum of mediums.

The Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery show, Re(A)d Earth, explores Aboriginal connection to land and the notion of ‘reading’ country. At Newcastle Art Gallery, Corpusconsiders representations of the body and the notion of ‘other’. Maitland Regional Art Gallery’s show, Razzamatazz, displays a range of theatrical, fantastical and playful artworks from the region, while the Lock Up in Newcastle is hosting Seeing Red, which aims to reflect the city’s political activism and history of protest.

Arguably the most wide-ranging and ambitious of the exhibitions is Re(A)d Earth. Among the Hunter-based Aboriginal artists participating are Doug Archibald, Carole Hartwig, Saretta Fielding, Damian Smith and Nicole Chaffey. A number of Elder artists are also involved, with Aboriginal groups from both the local region and across Australia represented in the exhibition.

“The project taps into the shared wisdom of Aboriginal nations and exemplifies the complexity and diversity of our mutual land,” says curator Donna Biles-Fernando, who developed the exhibition in partnership with the Aboriginal Reference Group.

Diversity is the key word, with Re(A)d Earth designed to represent the Australian Indigenous experience as widely as possible, not to mention a range of styles and medias.

“I wanted to explore the diversity of Aboriginal artists’ practice and the use of traditional or new media in traditional or new ways. ‘Contemporary’ does not have to mean a divergence from cultural practice and lore,” Biles-Fernando explains. “The diversity of works comes from the differing ages, sexes and Aboriginal nations represented. From our Elder works through to our younger emerging artists, each piece was chosen to highlight the out-of-the-box nature of Aboriginal art practice. Canvas meets film meets luminous glass meets masterful pottery.”

Megan Cope, Old Kahibah (detail) 2018, parish maps, vinyl print; Old Kahibah sound extraction and abstraction; locally sourced rocks and hollowed timber; violin, cello and double bass strings, sculptural installation dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and THIS IS NO FANTASY + Dianne Tanzer Gallery © the artist.

Among the works that Biles-Fernando is particularly excited about is Chaffey’s striking commissioned painting The Killing Song, 2018, an allegory of white man’s appropriation of land and dismissal of spirit. She also notes Archibald’s film installation Toe Yirannalai, 2018, which references the little-known story of the Singing Cliffs of Newcastle, which have been battered by both erosion and modern earthworks.

The work explores white man’s “denigration of local country.”

A work that expresses a profound spiritual connection with the landscape of the Hunter region is Fielding’s Puna Borii, 2018, a painting inspired by the sandstone engravings found in the area. Another highlight is the adventurous piece by Jonathan Jones, 68 Fletcher, Bondi, 2003, which aims to recreate the mood of the beachside suburb at night though domestic light bulbs that hang from extension cords down the gallery walls.

Jonathan Jones, 68 Fletcher, Bondi, 20:20, 8.6.03 (detail) 2003, extension cords, household light bulbs, movement sensors, 890 x 230 x 17.5cm. Gift of the Newcastle Gallery Society 2007, Newcastle Art Gallery collection © the artist.

One could say Re(A)d Earth thematically incorporates various aspects of the three other Hunter Red exhibitions: a strong political message can be found here, as can wild imagination and colour and a physicality that expresses a kinship between body and earth.

“Colour, movement, ritual, custom and contemporary praxis bring a freedom of expression so often denied to Aboriginal people across many avenues in Australian society,” says Biles-Fernando.

Hunter Red: Re(A)d Earth
Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery
26 May – 22 July

Hunter Red: Razzamatazz
Maitland Regional Art Gallery
5 May – 22 July

Hunter Red: Corpus
Newcastle Art Gallery
26 May – 22 July

Hunter Red: Seeing Red
The Lock Up
26 May – 1 July

Barnaby Smith