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Relative Terrains

Karma Barnes and Robèrt Franken

Grafton Regional Gallery, Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl Country,

Grafton, NSW, Australia

16th Sept - 12th November 2023


Exhibition Statement

Human and soil are derived from the same Latin root as the word for earth. The soil functions as an interface between the body and its environment. Literally and metaphorically, soil is the source of all existence. (1) We take birth on soil, live on soil, walk on soil, die on soil and finally vanish in soil. (2) All life originates from and returns to the earth. (3) Humans are themselves displays of complex sedimentary process, in the human there is material, fragment, abundance, clay, dirt, nonsense, chaos. (3)

Relative Terrains traverses the geological environments and volcanic landscapes of Bundjalung Country, Northern Rivers, Australia exploring how the forces of elements, time, and life experiences shape and change us. Through a palimpsest of the Earth's endless cycles of life and death, creation and destruction, the work examines how our internal and external experiences transform us. Earth pigments, produced by natural forces over eons, are the material, interface and mediator through which different elements meet, carrying the records of the land's creation and transformation and are metaphorical of our own stories as the co-creators of our life’s evolutionary process.
Relative Terrains first emerged as an applied research arts practice to reflectively comprehend the Australian Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20. This emergence coincided with the onset of the global COVID19 pandemic. The work continued throughout significant climatic shifts and ultimately a series of catastrophic flooding events induced by the ‘La Niña’ phenomena in early 2022. This flooding resulted in significant local and social devastation. The environmental effects of flooding; specifically large-scale landslides and erosion through to sediment translocation and silty deposition were considered as metaphors of inner psychological responses and collective social experiences and relationships to these climatic events.

The exhibition of Relative Terrains was initially scheduled to take place in Lismore Regional Gallery, however due to significant damage suffered by the gallery during the 2022 floods, The exhibition was postponed and later relocated to Grafton Regional Gallery. The research works of Relative Terrains have evolved amidst many climatic stressors, including droughts, fires, floods, and a pandemic. The work explores the influence of elemental forces, temporal dynamics, and personal life experiences on the shaping, adaptation, and transformation of individuals.

The initial body of work has expanded to encompass a broader range of experiences and works exhibited over the 3 years of development, including Transformation - Through the Pressures of Time (2020) examining how we are formed and informed by relationships through the intersections of nature and culture. Chromatic Terrains: A Symphony Of Expansiveness, a phenomenological experience inviting contemplation and reflection on transformation and change, vastness and the complexity of the human experience.  Fragmented (2023) installed in a flood-affected home of the Northern Rivers re-examined the challenge and the conventional notion of ‘Home’ while celebrating a flood-affected house on the brink of demolition, as a gesture of hope, resilience and creative transformation. The work explores how we respond internally to external fragmentation, loss, and identity connected to home and sense of place.

The works of Compounded Caldera (2022) and Raw Earth Palettes of Australia (2022) were specifically created for The Wild Pigment Project exhibition presented at form & concept Gallery of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA (2022) and at The NMSU Art Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA (2023). The show, curated by Tilke Elkins, the founding director of the Wild Pigment Project, brought together international pigment artists and their works who had actively participated with The Wild Pigment Project since its initiation in 2019.

The culmination of the research conducted on Relative Terrains resulted in a comprehensive presentation of the project on a significant scale in the Relative Terrains (2023) exhibition. The exhibition produced in collaboration with Robèrt Franken, an artist of Dutch origin, centres around an exploration of the importance and outcomes of collaboration, intersubjectivity and earth pigments, delving into the transformative effects that connections have on our essential essence and existence.  It serves as a stimulus for introspection and prompts us to contemplate the ways in which these external dynamics have reconfigured and altered our internal landscapes and terrains.

1 Phillipe Descola , Soil and Culture, editors E.R. Landa and C. Feller (Springer, 2010), p. xiii. 2 Satish Kumar, Soil , Soil, Society, a new trinity for our time, Leaping Hare Press, 2013. 3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Prelude to a Philosophy of the future, Cambridge University Press, 2012


Key Witness Media

Samsara Sounds


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Photo credit Grafton Regional Gallery

Video credit: Key Witness Media, Vasana Sounds

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The Mapping Internal & External Terrains - Community Cartography

Lismore Regional Gallery

Photo Credit Lismore Regional Gallery Cherise Winter


Community Pigment Callout

The Lismore Regional Gallery and artist Karma Barnes invite the community to participate in the Relative Terrains project through collecting and contributing local pigments, clays and soils. The exhibition Relative Terrains by local artist Karma Barnes and New Zealand artist Robért Franken, will be on display at Grafton Regional Gallery from 16 September - 12 November, and the pigments collected by the community will be used to make the works. 

If you would like to be involved, please follow the pigment gathering and contribution process below. SUBMISSIONS HAVE NOW CLOSED

1. Materials Collection: Participants are requested to gather 250-gram samples of local pigments, soils, ochres, rock pigments and flood mud. Please be mindful and respectful of locations when gathering materials, for further guidelines visit

2. Labeling: Each sample should be labeled with the following information:
• Location gathered: Specify the specific location or region from which the pigment was collected.

• Name of collector: Provide your name as the collector of the pigment.
• Contact details: Include your contact details (email address or phone
number) for further communication, if necessary.

• Personal connection, knowledge, or story: Share briefly any personal connection, knowledge, or story related to the place from which the pigment was gathered. This will contribute to the narrative and significance of the resulting artwork.

3. Packaging Requirements: To ensure the integrity of the materials, please follow these
• Well-sealed container jar or bag: Place the materials in a container jar or bag that is tightly sealed to prevent any spillage or contamination during transit.
• Dry and clean: Ensure that the materials are dry and free from debris, such as leaves, twigs, or other foreign matter.


Community Cartography Workshops

Thursday 17 August, 11 am - 1 pm

Lismore Quad BOOKED OUT


Saturday 7 October, 11 am -1 pm

Grafton Regional Gallery BOOKED OUT (contact the gallery for waiting list)

Join artist Karma Barnes in the Mapping Internal & External Terrains: Community Cartography workshop to explore the intersection of art, mapping, and personal experiences through earth pigments.

The workshop traverses the geological terrain and volcanic landscapes of the Northern Rivers and explores how we, the inhabitants of the land, form and change with the forces of the elements, time, pressures, and climatic factors. Participants are invited to each gather and bring with them 250-gram samples of local pigments, ochres, soils, charcoals or flood mud from their local environment. Participants will learn about processing materials into usable pigments and working with binders and mulling processes to transform these pigments into natural paints. Participants will create 3 works on paper to take home and contribute to a series of collaborative pigment paintings to contribute to the larger Refective Cartographies artwork, that will be exhibited at Lismore Regional Gallery (and then featured in the artist's upcoming show, Relative Terrains, at Grafton Regional Gallery opening on September 16th.

This workshop is for people aged 14 +.

Tickets and more information at

This workshop is part of our Science Week program Dark Science: New Moon. 

Relative Terrains Research Body 2020 - 2023

Relative Terrains is a practice-based research body that explores the interconnections between environmental changes and human experiences. The project is a collaborative effort by Karma Barnes and Robért Franken. The project has been developed over three art residencies at The School of Creativity and Art in Wellington, New Zealand in 2021 and 2022 (where Robért is a permanent artist in residence) and then continued during their third residency in late 2022 at the Northern Rivers Community Gallery in the Northern Rivers. During their residencies, Barnes and Franken immersed themselves in the natural environment exploring the geological terrains and their internal responses. Their research involved extensive fieldwork, including creative mapping, and pigment collection from across the Northern Rivers, engaging with local communities and Indigenous knowledge holders.

The resulting artworks in Relative Terrains are a reflection of their research and experiences. The large-scale installations and suspended paintings are produced in a range of mediums, including locally sourced pigments, which are used to create a connection between the artwork and the land.

The exhibition aims to create an immersive experience for the viewers, inviting them to explore the interconnections between environmental changes and human experiences. The artwork highlights the dramatic shifts in our environmental cycles and how this informs our internal and external experiences.

The exhibition was initially scheduled for January 2023 at the Lismore Regional Gallery, but the exhibition was displaced due to the devastating floods earlier this year. The Grafton Regional Gallery has now snapped up the opportunity to house the exhibition, along with a number of other displaced exhibitions.


Relative Terrains is an inspiring example of practice-based research, which highlights the importance of collaboration, engagement with local communities, and the use of locally sourced materials in the creation of artwork. The exhibition offers a unique and immersive experience that invites viewers to explore the interconnections between the environment and human experiences.

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