Convict humanity explored in art exhibition

ART HISTORY: Nicole Chaffey with Sophia Emmett’s Our Heritage of Displacement. Picture: Marina NeilIN the early 1800s, Newcastle was a harsh penal settlement for the colony’s worst convicts.
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And while they may have been criminals, they were human.

This is one theme of a new Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery exhibition – A very fine river: convict stories from the Hunter – that opens today.

The exhibition takes its name from Lieutenant John Shortland’s description of the Hunter River in 1797 as ‘‘a very fine coal river’’, when he was searching for a boat of convict escapees.

Soon after, a convict camp called King’s Town was established and became notorious as a place of incarceration and hard labour.

‘‘[A] sense of trepidation, isolation and fear of the unknown must have permeated every hour of [the convicts’] existence,’’ exhibition co-curator Nicole Chaffey said.

‘‘Displacing the person from all that is natural and familiar was an act of dehumanisation.’’

Five Hunter artists – Sophia Emmett, Ruth Feeney, Carolyn McKay, Tara Standing and Ryan Williams – have contributed to the exhibition.

Ms McKay examines the tradition of convict tattoos.

‘‘Nineteenth century criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso considered tattoos as a potent signifier of criminality,’’ Ms McKay said.

‘‘Today tattoos have become socially acceptable, but they still identify groups and criminals.’’

Another exhibition at the gallery is Felt Presence, which depicts the fate of female convicts sent to Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land) in the mid-1800s.