Art and Australia May 2104
Karla Dickens: Continuing the Dialogue
Karla Dickens artworks are the result of a continuing dialogue between past and the present; a conversation grounded in her Aboriginality and sexuality. An ‘ongoing connection’ to her Aboriginal grandmother, Myrtle, and her immigrant grandfather, Tom ‘fuels much of her work’. (Dickens pers.com. 3/2/14)
Dickens is a Wiradjuri woman born in Sydney in the 1967 – the year of the Referendum that theoretically gave human status and equal rights to the Nations’ First People. However, the gap between theory and practice is something that most Aboriginal Australians are still confronted with today. The use of the term ‘gap’ is a well-worn one by white academics, policy-makers and theorists to describe what they see as Aboriginal ‘deficit’ – the gap in educational achievement, the gap in employment, the gap in income etc. Dickens’ work is part of a growing body of Aboriginal creative expression that interrogates this gap as a colonial rather than an Aboriginal deficit.
Dickens’ early education was at Darlinghurst and Mascot. As a child she had dreams of being an artist and living on a farm. She left school at seventeen and worked in a series of part-time unskilled jobs. Her main objective during this time was to ‘create as much art as possible’ (pers. com 3/2/14). In her early twenties she attended the National Art School in Sydney where she initially received a Diploma, which she later converted to a Bachelor of Arts.
To attempt to categorize Dickens as an artist would be reductionist. Her impressive array of work makes use of many mediums to convey a strong, resilient story of contemporary Aboriginality in Australia. Layering of mediums to represent layers of time and experience is a central feature of her work. Dickens uses fabric, leather, paper, paint, feathers, photographs, plastic and ‘all things discarded and fossicked from rubbish tips’ (pers.com. 3/2/14) such as old baseball masks, fish hooks and reel, twine and bone to create two and three-dimensional pieces.
Dickens artistic practice is dictated by the deep and prevalent feelings she has about issues that have long preoccupied her thoughts. ‘I often have a topic in mind for ages and I mull it over in my mind for sometime. I don’t dismiss it – I just let it hang there. Then, sometime when I am walking or foraging through the tip, I’ll find something…something that nobody else wants and I’ll know straight away that this is the material or object I need to express a long- held thought or as yet unexpressed feeling’ (pers.com 3/2/2014).
I come to this discussion of Dickens’ not as an artist or art critic, but as a Wiradjuri scholar whose formal background is in western literary history and its long trajectory of representations of Aboriginal people. Murri scholar Aileen Moreton Robinson 2000 xxii) argued that: ‘Representations are more than mere symbols. They are ways by which we come to know, embody and inform reality’. Continuing for nearly two hundred years, it was white Australians who controlled and generated visual and literary representations of Aboriginal people. Such depictions were usually grounded in deficit and manifested the unequal power relationships consistent with times and places of the production in the colonial project.
Aboriginal people have never been complicit or passive towards the invasion and encroachment of the British diaspora in our land and on our country, despite the official colonial history that, until recently ignored or denied this. During the sixties, however, it became increasingly difficult for non-Aboriginal Australians to ignore this. Aboriginal scholar Cliff Watego (1988) asserted that the most important waves of social change filtering from abroad was the ascendant position and activism of the Blacks and the swiftness of the media to report on such events. Watego went on to say that during the 1960s many educated Australians were conscious of the indications of change despite the conservative Menzies era and argued that the prevailing mood abroad could not be discounted as having a profound influence on race relations at home. The 1963 Yolngu Bark Petition, the 1966 Wave Hill Walk Off, 1965 Freedom Rides, the 1967 Referendum and the re-establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972, evidence this. Activism continued throughout the 70s and 80s and in 1988, the 200th anniversary of the British invasion, bus loads of Aboriginal people, arriving in Sydney from all over Australia to protest the re-enactment of the arrival of the ‘tall ships forced many settlers to confront, the Black history that they had either misrepresented or ignored. Aboriginal creative expression has played a key role in the post-invasion, post Mabo, post-sorry socio-political climate to speak back to and re-present our histories respectfully and present our aspirations for the future.
Dickens’ work is part of an expanding body of creative expression by Aboriginal artists and writers that ‘performs a different reality’ to the existing historical trajectory for Aboriginal Australians. I would like to focus on two aspects of Dickens’ artistic practice; her transformation of colonial waste and surplus into Aboriginal creations and statements; and her representations of black women. In this I will draw parallels between her works and that of some Aboriginal women writers.
Dickens’ work makes much use of what may be from a colonial perspective, described as rubbish or waste. For example objects such as old dog muzzles, a planer, baseball gloves and a discarded fish reel have been reworked into three-dimensional sculptures that symbolize both traditional and contemporary aspects of Aboriginality. In this way her work calls into questions culturally specific notions the disposability and permanence. I am reminded of Waanyi writer Alexis Wright’s award winning novel, Carpentaria. Wright recasts colonial waste as Aboriginal resources and in doing so she contests notions of excess and the ‘no-value’ status of rubbish, by depicting waste in a manner that is in keeping with Aboriginal ontology in which the concept of objects having no value is foreign. An Aboriginal approach to waste is restorative and recuperative; what does not have use for one entity may be useful to another, whether they are human or animal. In Wright’s work, the garbage dump takes on a central role as an important site of cultural exchange.
This approach to excess and waste resonates strongly with Dickens’ art. Some rusty metal, cow teeth and black and red twine are woven together in her two-dimensional series Masks. Resembling traditional masks worn in Aboriginal ceremony, the faceless space behind these masks create shadows that stare out, as a solid reminder of the continuing presence and guidance of Elders pervading the present.
Shadows are a reoccurring theme in much of Dickens’ work. Shadows may be barley visible, and silent, but they are inescapable, like the past. Shadows, in such works as The Black Dogs series symbolize unresolved issues that characterize much of contemporary Aboriginal life due to the history of removal of children and the relocation of many families from their traditional Country.1 The shadows serve to remind us of the unfinished business that exists between Aboriginal and settler Australians that needs to be addressed if a genuine state of reconciliation is to be realized in the 21st century.
The widespread and profound symbolism of the Black Madonna is a central concern of Dickens’ painting and sculpture. The Black woman in Australian colonial literature has until recently been represented as a ‘dejected plodder’ (see for example Patrick White 1976) or as a temptress, a sexual object whose desires are more in keeping with animal instincts rather than human rationalism (see Katharine Prichard, 1929, Arthur Upfield 1959, Leonard Mann, 1963). For settler women, the Black woman is the ‘dark secret in the colonial closet’. Dickens’ images refuse such assimilation. Her two and three-dimensional images of the Black mother emit a dignified reverence, that is in keeping with Aboriginal matrilineal culture. This resonates with my own collection of poetry, Dark Secrets After Dreaming (Leane 2010). Inspired by family and anecdotal stories from Wiradjuri women it is a testimony to the strength and endurance of Aboriginal women from campfire, to captivity, to confinement and on through colonialism. Like Dickens’ work it challenges colonial secrecy with our continuing presence and our representations of our past, present and future.
Millennia of clothing, centuries of science,
Brains and hearts under the microscope,
decades of colonial corsets pulled tight
will never restrain or contain this
Dark Secret. (32)
Dickens’ work is an ongoing testimony to the continual role of Aboriginal women as keepers of stories and custodians of the past; and a living, dynamic contemporary Australian Aboriginal culture. It is a palimpsest of diverse layers that symbolize continuity and change and the ongoing dialogue between the two.