Artlink Indigenous Cover
KARLA DICKENS: IT’S NOT BLOODY ART – IT’S WORK!
Karla Dickens describes herself as a woman pushing 50, menopausal with plenty to say
and nothing to loose. She is too busy working and going to the tip to be bothered by
what people are saying (or not saying) about her. Karla proudly quotes she’s a mum and
her daughter Ginger motivates Karla to work hard. Historically the work ethic has always
been an important part of the aboriginal life. Something she recognised in her family and
understood to be a fact of life for aboriginal people.
In the group exhibition Hearby Make Protest, Karla created a series of masks. In
Assimilated Warriors 2014 she uses found masks, raffia, teeth, feathers, all pointing to
an identity built on tribal being meshed with the complexities of a contemporary self. She
uses fragments of farm equipment as bold and aggressive visual statements loaded with
meaning. Labouring and farming is a shared blue-collar backdrop in Australia’s identity,
unfortunately the idea of the “fair go” has only limited traction for aboriginal people.
The exhibition focused on the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association [AAPA] and
the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) who in 1920s and 30s campaigned for
change to advance aboriginal peoples civil rights. Nearly a century on change is still
faltering. Mythologies making aboriginal peoples appear lazy and thankless are self
serving positions that frequently emerge throughout European settlement. Disparities
and injustices are rarely made out to be a white problem. ‘The present Australian
historical climate is a clearly divided and a politically charged environment of hostility.
The great importance of revealing and recognising our erased histories is self evident in
any argument’. (p.143 The Fight for Liberty and Freedom)
There is a deep knowing in Karla Dickens work as her culture straddles the
acknowledgement of tradition alongside ever changing progress. And that progress is
riddled with obstacles and injustice. Her work also marks a renewal of tradition; there is
a clear reading of strength and confidence. The mask is a recurring feature in Karla’s
work. As well as concealing, a mask also conveys power, as it has a protective quality to
keep its wearer safe. The viewer is simultaneously challenged with what is being
revealed and what is being concealed in her work.
The pain expressed in Karla’s work is raw. Her work is not political work for the sake of
it. She is driven by her feelings and what comes out is tangible. Its rough and rusty
qualities are a reflection of her internal struggles and the necessity to manage her
abrasive psyche. When discussing the representation of the dark aspects of her fears,
feelings and understanding about being aboriginal, as well as her own past, she says
‘the darker I go in my work, the better I feel”.
This necessity to express darkness is further manifested in her trips to the tip and car
boot sales. The resourcefulness of creating work from refuse and discarded parts of
society. It can also be seen as a reference to the art readymade, the found object and
Art Povera, an art movement using refuse driven by politics out of post war Italy. Karla’s
connection to culture and the value in what country provides is key here.
Aboriginal people have survived catastrophic events for over two centuries: land taken
away, children stolen, murders and addiction. Driven by “the dominant ethos was that
there was nothing of value in Aboriginal culture – all the value lay in European culture.”
(p.17 Stolen Generations Text). This brutal reality visits as inter-generation trauma that
Karla understands and has lived with all her life. It was her own years of substance
abuse and turning that pain inward and onto herself which begun to expose these
unspoken troubles. Through overcoming addiction, art became a vehicle though which
unspoken anxieties could begin to be expressed.
In 2012 Karla Dickens found an Australian flag at the rubbish tip. She careful stitched
black crosses onto it and beaded the union jack with some shells. The work was
awarded the 2013 Parliament of New South Wales Aboriginal Art Prize.
The flag becomes both material and immaterial simultaneously. It had little value in its
own right as a piece of cloth, discarded at the tip and also becomes embedded with stoic
power when activated as a national ensign. It can be turned into beach balls, bikinis and
thongs. In the 2005 Cronulla riots it was worn as a cape, like some heroic gesture that
would fly its wearer into victory. The question was always what would actually constitute
a victory. Karla feels aggressiveness in the Australian flag today and it gives a certain
permissiveness to white racism. She was criticised publicly for her additions to the flag
by conservative public commentators (shock jocks) and later feared retribution from right
wing supremacist groups after real threats were made against her life.
Karla explains when questioned about the significance of the meaning and number of
crosses. “They represent death, the cross in some indigenous symbolism also represent
a figure of a person, and representing Christianity”. The layering of crosses was for an
honouring of family and ancestors and the sacrifice they made to country for their
families and communities. “If I was really serious in a literal representation of death and
sacrifice. It would be a lumpy mass of black crosses, there would be no blue”.
Karla’s work often seduces the viewer with something familiar. At first glance there is a
disarming piece of textile or craft element that makes her work accessible. Her recent
work is a series of souvenir rum bottles in the shape of Captain James Cook.
Each is reworked with additions of beads, shells, feathers and a repainting of Cook’s
skin. It’s disturbing to see a dark skinned Captain Cook and understand him as the
genocidal marker that started it all. The works are sculptural and Karla has also created
some photographs of faceless indigenous homeless men holding these bottles. The
echoes of homelessness and the effects of grog become amplified in these images.
Cooks instructions from the British government were, ‘with the consent of the natives to
take possession of convenient situations” in the name of King George III. Instead of
sticking to a few ‘convenient situations’ he claimed the whole lot. In a ceremony on 22
August 1770, at a place off the tip of Cape York that he aptly named Possession Island,
he declared with imperial hubris, peaceful possession of the whole country of which he
knew virtually nothing and had barely seen.”
Australia’s Empire p.81
I first saw Karla’s work in a vitrine in 2002 at the Lismore show grounds at a Tropical
Fruits Inc. arts show. She displayed some delicately beaded dresses emblazoned with
the words “Slut”. The works embodied a quality of patience with the meticulous
making of domestic craft before revealing their more sinister meanings exposing the
darker commentary on domestic violence. I was fascinated by who could have created
these works. A decade or so later we are friends and working artists in this country.
My own background is Greek, tradition and culture are who I am. It’s something I share
as solid with indigenous peoples. I have gained certain insight into its culture/s, country
and the spirit world. It also burdens me with allied prejudices and suspicions of colonial,
post-colonial and de-colonialised frameworks. All of which have also affected my own
passage and “privilege” as a wog (or ethic other) in Australia.
Well made and craft oriented in nature Karla’s work its coarse and crusty. She
professes, there is no slickness here, “I’m not a fine art print kind of artist”. Beaded and
nailed, pieces of costumes or scrap farm equipment, birdcages, a touch of paint all carry
the markers of an artist who understands the material she’s working with.
Karla Dickens work cuts through some pretty tough territory; Domestic violence,
genocide, trauma and cultural dislocation. It is true work and it is honest. She exhibits an
extraordinary versatility in artistic practice that is unrestrained to any single medium. This
is her strength. The breadth of her work is rich in complexity, texture, and experience.
For viewers her work will continuously be a precious commodity, and the next round of
works will have a wildly different quality to surprise and confront us.
26 February 2015