‘In the red’ is the inaugural exhibition in the new purpose built UQ Anthropology Museum Gallery on level 1 in the multi-million dollar refurbishment of the Michie Building at UQ’s St Lucia campus in Brisbane.
The UQ Anthropology Museum, like many ethnographic collections, is bursting with items that might be distinguished as ‘red’; things made with feathers, ochres, seeds, shells and the red cotton cloth known as ‘trade cloth’.
There are synthetically derived reds, red from the earth and digital reds. Red things have been highly valued in a multitude of societies and widely traded.
The exhibition focuses on the rare feather money made by Santa Cruz islanders to obtain wives, highly prized red ochres used to coat both human bodies and artefacts in many Indigenous Australian societies, red shell money, red consumables, such as betel nut. Red cotton cloth was used by European colonists as an exchange item because it was so novel, bright and desirable to many colonized peoples. The social value of all these things, for their makers, lay in their redness.
The exhibition displays more than 360 objects. You can discover some for yourself in the gallery’s new drawer units. The exhibition will change with some new objects appearing throughout the duration of the show. There is work specially commissioned from artist Fiona Foley using shields from her country of Fraser Island. Jennifer Deger’s film born from collaborative film-making with Yolngu in north east Arnhem Land, new work by Ryan Presley, Sally Mulda’s paintings about contemporary life in Alice Springs town camps, Niningka Lewis woven grass tea set and painted bark cloth made by Omie women artists. The exhibition includes things from the Museum’s founder Dr L. P. Winterbotham’s own collection that dates from the early twentieth century. There are some important bark paintings from east and central Arnhem Land. There are things that were once red or might become red. There are red consumables, body wear, the spectacular red feather money. There are quantities of red ochred boomerangs, shields, clubs, spear throwers and women’s carrying dishes made by many unknown Indigenous individuals. There are red masks, trumpets drums and sculptures from the Pacific, red shoes, a head dress made from red corned beef packaging and much more.
Why do people across space and time lust after red things? What does red do for our psyche? Redness is connected with emotional intensity – power, energy, fire, danger, violence, blood and desire. Is it mad, bad and bloody or does redness have other dimensions?
Red ‘out does’ other hues. Red can be a full stop, a beginning, a declaration. Is there some universal response to this idea that we call in English ‘red’ ? Is there a universal agreement on the category of ‘red’?
Contemporary Western culture has, it might be argued, a predilection for chromaphobia but every so often chromaphilia swivels to the fore. Currently we are in one such period, coinciding with the aftermath of the global financial crisis, when brightly colour is again in fashion. And more than ever before in the history of the world there is global availability of brightly coloured goods and hyper coloured digital imagery. Since the turn of this century there has been more research and writing on colour in academia and a resurgence of colourfulness in Western contemporary art.
Bright colours make things seem present and alive. Red, with its metaphoric shorthand for fiscal insolvency has returned, including as the theme or title of many exhibitions. But the material manifestation of reds, are, like sunsets, fleeting. Many red dyes quickly fade or transform into another hue. (In the UQAM collection it is red feathers that have retained their vibrancy through the decades.) As Malraux reminds us the past tends to reach us colour-less and there is a popular Western contemporary convention in film and photography that represents the past in black and white.
This exhibition aims to offer the gallery visitor an immersive experience exploring the spatial, temporal and affective dimensions of red. The gallery walls too are red after the French artist Henri Matisse’s influential painting ‘the red studio’. Matisse used bright red paint to flatten out the space of the room in his picture. The red was also said to be produced by his return indoors from a brilliantly green garden which gave him an after image of red. The UQ gallery is painted a darker red to complement the mostly subtle, faded reds of collection items. The green walls will give you an ‘after image’ of bright red if you stare at one close up for 30 seconds and then shut your eyes.
Exhibiting red things, things that were once red, might become red or be imagined as red also enables us to address how museum collections maintain their vibrancy and relevance.