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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

Relative Cartographies

Lismore Regional Gallery

26th August - 8th September 2023

A collaborative exhibition, Relative Terrains presents the work of artists Karma Barnes and Robèrt Franken. The pair first met almost twenty-five-years ago, and have since evolved their art-based friendship into a creative, material alliance, based upon mutual affinities. Indeed, as evidenced in this contemplative, poetic exhibition, Relative Terrains is all about relationships – about the way humans are defined by affiliations and interdependencies – with each other, with other-than-humans, and as immersed in the environment. Whether the singular works in Relative Terrains speak of form, pigment, geology, culture or community, as a whole, the exhibition works to invite the viewer into a shared space where they experience reverie, equilibrium and calm.

In fact, balance and gravity each play an important role in every artwork. Most literally, in Barnes’ sculptural installation, CO-Lapses (2023), a group of seven suspended, elegant pods release streams of variously coloured, finely ground pigments onto the floor. As the downward-spilling red and yellow ochres, cream and tan particles form tiny hills, they are walled-in by curved Perspex, allowing a cutaway view of pigment strata. This small-scale vertical surface of layered sediment recalls geological processes building multi-coloured, millennia-old rock formations, and the passage of deep time. Additionally, the pods themselves have been designed to reference a backstory. While Barnes was working in her studio, she discovered that mud wasps were accessing her soil pigments to build their carefully shaped nests on the ceiling above her. Their results were, of course, multi-hued. Awe-struck by such a literal, visual example of inter-species entanglement, Barnes created CO-Lapses as poetic tribute to the wasps’ diligence and artistry. Her felt connection to the wasps’ lifecycle, (beginning as eggs, transforming into larvae, then as cocooned pupae, resulting in emergence as adults), intuitively linked to changes we experience throughout our human lives. CO-Lapses can be said to be a confirmation of intersubjectivity, defined as, “the notion that reality is co-constructed by participants in a relationship and in society”. As such, for Barnes, “society” encompasses a world co-created by humans and nonhumans.

In Franken’s splendid painting A Window to Reflect (2022), weightlessness and balance, mark-making and colour form a visual dialogue. With a buoyant sense of movement, flow and gesture, and contrasting earthly, dark umber framework, A Window to Reflect references life cycles of growth and decay. Directly in front, Barnes’ floor installation Earthly Embodiments: Shifting Landscapes (2023) works to convey the intersection of humans’ life experiences with climatic and geological events. How do human histories and landscape transformations influence one another? How can art express these experiences in tangible artifacts of significance? Here, Barnes has installed a 8 metre-long, low-lying plinth comprised of vintage Grafton bricks retrieved during renovation of the Art Gallery. The bricks have been semi-coated with a (now hardened) pinkish slip of liquid metamorphic earth. Lined up along the length of the bricks in subtly shifting tones, approximately thirty-five small, sculptural soil spheres reference transformation and the passage of time. They draw inspiration from the Japanese art of making dorodangos from soil, and employ earth derived from locations disrupted and damaged by landslides. The spheres have been transfigured through processes of compacting and burnishing, replicating here on a small scale geological processes occurring similarly on vast terrestrial spaces. At one end of Earthly Embodiments: Shifting Landscapes, the spheres gradually disintegrate into loose particles and pieces, following a stream of hardened metamorphic earth down onto the floor, signaling breakdown and entropy. In this installation, 19th century bricks bear unknown human stories of labour and creativity that converge with nonhuman materialities of earth, fire, and water.

Clearly, it is Palimpsest: Echoes of Creation and Transformation (2023), a three-year project, that coalesces the artists’ shared concerns into true collaboration. This large-scale installation combining painting and sculpture is comprised of earth pigments, acrylics and oils, and ink on prepared marine ply. Palimpsest presents fifteen large, cut-out biomorphic shapes hung from the ceiling, forming a circle. Each shape is painted on both back and front, with Barnes using paints, on one side, made from foraged pigments, and Franken, painting on the reverse, employing traditional oil paints and ink. Together, their respective painting styles refer to a central thematic thread of Relative Terrains, namely, that the landscapes in which we conduct our lives affect our experience of life – from our immersion in slow transitions of deep geological time, to cataclysmic environmental events which occur increasingly often. Barnes’ softly-hued, mineral-toned paint, applied in graceful, fluid passages, suggests an introspective landscape of thoughtful reflection on life experience.  She says of working with found, natural pigments that, “Earth pigments, produced by natural forces over aeons, are the material, interface and mediator through which different elements meet, carrying the records of the land's creation and transformation that are metaphors for our own stories as co-creators of our life’s evolutionary process”. Franken’s compositions speak more of aerial maps of physical terrain of mountains, valleys, paths and waterways. Yet both artists’ aesthetic voices speak of the Earth, of our profound relationship to the soil, and of the imprint of time on humanity, embodied in the natural world.

In their gridded, orderly presentation, Relative Cartographies (2023) and Mapping Internal & External Terrains - Community Cartography (2023) document Barnes’ recent social engagement practice. Produced with pigments submitted by community contributors and studied in follow-up workshops, three installations explore the intersection of art, mapping, and personal experiences through collection and identification of earth pigments of Bundjalung Country, Northern Rivers area, NSW. Examples of pigment samples and stories include: “Bush fire charcoal taken from the landscape of the Northern Rivers bush fires of 2019”; “Murwillumbah flood mud 2022, South Murwillumbah flooded shed”; and “Red Rock composed of 300-million-year-old Jasper”. In these works, Barnes has composed pigment samples into lush tonal arrays of subtly varying reds and yellows, umbers, greys and black. This methodical study of the aesthetic qualities of pigment hints at quantitative data produced by scientific rigour. However, the installations comprise material and emotional cartographies mapping human and nonhuman narratives, made to rebuild and strengthen bonds of attachment, to push back against crisis and loss, and to care for beauty and country. Rather than emerging from a purely factual, scientific regimen, these collaborative works accentuate intersubjectivity of living and non-living entities entangled through aesthetics, experiences and influences exchanged over time. Barnes’ and Franken’s collaborative efforts steadily remind us to value our interconnectedness, and prompt us to contemplate the ways in which these external dynamics have reconfigured and altered our internal landscapes and terrains.


Relative Terrains: A Critical Reflection

Carol Schwarzman Meanjin/Brisbane, 2023
University of Queensland.


Key Witness Media

Samsara Sounds


GRG - Media_edited.jpg

Photo credit Grafton Regional Gallery

Video credit: Key Witness Media, Vasana Sounds

Karma Barnes at LRG_photo by Cherie Winter.jpg

The Mapping Internal & External Terrains - Community Cartography

Lismore Regional Gallery

Photo Credit Lismore Regional Gallery Cherise Winter


Karma Barnes 2020 - 2023

Artist Narrative

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
4 Tilke Elkins, Wild Pigment Project Exhibition Curatorial Statement (2022).



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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