The exhibition, which celebrates both the history of Aboriginal activism in New South Wales and the work of some of the states leading Indigenous artists, takes as its inspiration a powerful portrait of Dr Charles Perkins by the artist Robert Campbell Jnr. Both the artist, who has a number of works in the exhibition, and his subject are today regarded as groundbreaking in their exposition of Indigenous inequalities. As Robert Campbell Jnr states, “I am painting to show people – Aboriginal people, and even the whites – what truths took place in my lifetime: for example, being fenced off at the pictures; the dog-tag system. I am telling the stories, the struggle of Aboriginal people, tribal and others, through my life”.
The well-received exhibition opened to a full house on the 3rd of July with many of the artists in attendance. Its aim was to pay tribute to what Professor Ann Curthoys, an original ‘freedom rider’ calls the “enduring legacy” of the 1965 Freedom Ride, organised by a group of University of Sydney students, including Charles Perkins, who went on to be the first Indigenous graduate of the University and a prominent leader of the Aboriginal rights movement. As Ann Curthoys states, students like Charles Perkins and Gary Williams, a Gumbaynggir man “helped unite two emerging forces that were beginning to change Australian society; the Aboriginal rights movement and student radicalism”.
Also bearing witness to the Freedom Ride of 1965 and the climate of segregation and exclusion that the student demonstrations were against, is the installation of the documentary film Blood Brothers- Freedom Ride, made by Rachel Perkins and Ned Landers. The inclusion of the film in the exhibition brings together the artworks not only conceptually, but also as politically informed artistic statements on the practical conditions and struggles of Indigenous people, then and now.
Adam Hill’s K9 vs. bloodline on the breadline, for example, speaks of the artist’s concerns for the contemporary struggle of both rural and urban Indigenous peoples in regards to the discriminatory behaviour of police and the Northern Territory Intervention specifically, saying the painting ”was produced in opposition to the racist John Howard’s [Northern Territory] Intervention implementation”. Adam Hill describes his painting, one of the most emotionally charged in the Freedom Riders exhibition, as one of “urban payback”, saying the image is “from the heart – mine and from the heart of Redfern, an ode to TJ [Hickey] and all local mob who in the course of Redfern history have gone unrecognised officially while the officials become more official. Redfern is the police punching bag of NSW”.
Read a related story on the very recent resignation of Curator Hetti Perkins from the AGNSW due to the “sidelining” of Indigenous Art: here.