the TERRA within

When curator Warwick Keen selected artworks for ‘The TERRA Within’, he reached out to First Nations artists he had worked with previously. ‘They all were quite quick to support my request to come and contribute to the exhibition,’ he said. A little ‘taken back’ by the response, Keen soon had a commitment from established artists including Fiona Foley, Karla Dickens, Vernon Ah Kee, and Jason Wing. Paired with a strong focus on South Coast artists, the result is an expansive exhibition at Shoalhaven Regional Gallery featuring works by over thirty Indigenous artists.

Ambitiously, ‘The TERRA Within’ surveys the impact of colonisation since Captain Cook’s voyage to the east coast of Australia 250 years ago. But to include all of this history in its complexity is a difficult task. Instead, as Keen explains, the exhibition aims to reflect on the largely untold history of colonisation and celebrate the continuation of the oldest surviving culture in the world. As the name suggests, ‘The TERRA Within’ dually references the lived experience of colonisation felt by Indigenous Australians and the enduring connection to country and culture. ‘It’s relative to the traumatic events that have occurred over the last 250 years,’ Keen said. ‘It’s about the terror inside experienced by Aboriginal people since colonisation, which still exists for many, many people.’

Themes of survival and strength are threaded throughout the exhibition, most obviously in works that are explicitly political and challenge accepted accounts of white-settler history. ‘Some viewers could and will be offended to varying degrees, I suppose. But they need to be able to look at the louder, more political works and try to identify with that as much as they can,’ comments Keen. ‘It’s important to have the louder works, the more politically inclined, to get people thinking’, he adds.

New work by Jason Wing, shields Noble Savage (2020) and About Face (2020) – emblazoned with their titles across rusted corten steel – call out the blatant disavowal of Aboriginal sovereignty through English language. Wing’s shields resonate deeply with Karla Dicken’s Fight Club series (2016), also included in the exhibition. Alongside these contemporary artworks are traditional forms such as bark painting and intricate weaving. Keen strikes a careful balance between what he calls the ‘quieter’ pieces and the more political works.

‘At the same time, within the gallery context, there’s lots of beautiful, less rebellious work that signifies the presence and the peace and the overall culture that existed pre-colonisation,’ he explains.

Keen talks about the intricate shell work Harbour Bridge (1988-89) by Esme Timbery and Rose Timbery as one instance where viewers will see the continuation of culture that ties pre-colonisation with the present. Another is a new commission by Noel Wellington, Shield (2020), carved from Bangalay timber and adopting the tradition of tree scarring as practiced by the artist’s grandfather. Wellington is one of four South Coast artists commissioned to create new work, supported by the Gibbon Foundation. Other artists include Peter Hewitt, Jaz Corr, and Kirli Saunders.  

the TERRA within
10 October – 5 December 2020
Shoalhaven Regional Gallery, NSW

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