MARIA POULOS | March 2016

Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.
Karla Dickens’ site-specific installation
at Allens’ Sydney office presents an
alternative view of Australian history
and contemporary life as seen through
the eyes of a Wiradjuri woman. Born
in Sydney in 1967, her work questions
notions of identity, colonisation, cultural
dispossession and social diaspora, and
their opposites: cultural affirmation,
continuity and the reclamation of history.
Identity, history and the spaces between
black and white societies are potent
themes for many urban indigenous
artists. As Dickens affirms, she has ‘two
loves in life: art and family and a passion
for protest.’ 2Using art as her voice, she
seeks to ‘raise questions in the hope that
once a story is told there will be a desire
for change.’ Her evocative depictions of
resistance to cultural and environmental
oppression are juxtaposed with
reinterpretations of colonialist images,
which belie benign representations of
settlement. The dignity of the individual,
so often negated in history, is repeated
throughout her images in sepia, black
and white and colour photography
1 ‘The Past’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
2 In conversation with the artist on 28
February 2016.
representing the passing of time and
historical events, recalling her forefathers
and mothers who have preceded her and
‘whose presence and guidance continue
to pervade the present.’3
Viewed through the glass lifts of the
Norman Foster building and showcased
as cabinets of curiosities, Dickens’
installation moves towards a brash climax
in its provocative political and social
commentary. As precursors to museums
in Renaissance Europe, cabinets of
curiosities were encyclopaedic collections
of objects categorised as belonging to
natural history, geology, ethnography,
archaeology, religious or historical relics,
works of art, and antiquities. Formed by
3 Ibid
rulers and aristocrats, members of the
merchant class and early practitioners
of science, these multi-compartmented
cabinets and vitrines, which eventually
grew to become entire rooms, were
microcosms or theatres of the world
which symbolically conveyed the
patron’s control of it through its indoor,
microscopic reproduction.4 The curios in
Dickens’ vitrines function in much the
same way.
From a postmodern perspective, Dickens
recasts her accoutrements as relics or
curiosities of the Western imagination
4 Francesaco Fiorani, reviewing Bredecamp
1995 in Renaissance Quarterly 51.1 (Spring
1998:268-270) p 268.
by combining handcrafted objects
fashioned through weaving and basketry
and found objects (primarily refuse),
that would appear to have no intrinsic
value – baseball masks, whiskey bottles,
fabric remnants, rusted metals – she
creates three-dimensional sculptures
that represent both traditional and
contemporary aspects of Aboriginality.
Here time and ritual become displaced
in the merging and layering of these
utilitarian artefacts of traditional culture
with the political and philosophical
musings of contemporary society. Each of
the five vitrines in the project space are
thereby transformed into figments of a
hybrid universe, one that simultaneously
pays homage to indigenous art forms
while nodding to the experimentation
of Aboriginal artists across media and
perspectives today.
The title to Dickens’ installation King Hit by
Life-like Liquid, takes its name from both
the colourful historic figure, Bungaree
(1775 -1830), who was renowned during
the governorship of Lachlan Macquarie
in the early nineteenth century, and the
insidious effects of alcohol abuse found
in indigenous communities since the
British colonisation of Australia. King
Hit is Bungaree, the first person to be
described in print as being an ‘Australian’
and the first Indigenous person to
circumnavigate Australia, having sailed
with Matthew Flinders and acting as
a mediator between English colonists
and Aboriginal people. In his obituary,
Bungaree was titled ‘his Aboriginal
Majesty King Boongarie, Supreme Chief
of the Sydney Tribe’. Bungaree established
himself as an important identity on his
own terms and was acknowledged for his
intelligence, character, sense of humour
and ostentatiousness. Often dressing and
sleeping in military and naval uniforms
given to him, he would affect the walk
and mannerisms of every governor from
John Hunter to Sir Thomas Brisbane.
Speaking English well, he would perfectly
imitate every conspicuous personality
in Sydney. However, after a protracted
illness due to alcoholism, Bungaree died
on 24 November 1830 and was buried
at Rose Bay. A portrait of him by Charles
Rodius hangs in the Public Library of NSW.5
Bungaree’s life and story spoke to Dickens
addressing the continuing dilemma of
5 Bungaree by Keith Vincent Smith, 2011
living between conflicting world views.
She reflects:
I am obsessed and warmed by the man
Bungaree and his playful interaction
with the new Colonial rulers. Bungaree
was a man of intelligence and wit. He
was flamboyant and content to play
the fool because it paid off handsomely
at times. He was a solid hinge swinging
between black and white camps, a role
possessed by few in his day.6
Life-like liquid is the name given to a threechannel
video Dickens created in 2014,
which continues Dickens’ exploration
of the life and times of Bungaree. This
video was in response to a project that
coincided with the 200th anniversary
of Governor Macquarie’s land grant to
Bungaree at Georges Heights, Sydney. A
significant historic event, this was the first
such land grant from colonial authorities
to an Aboriginal person in Australia.
6 Artist statement dated 1 March 2016.
The video features the naked torso
of a tattooed Aboriginal man who
gingerly balances various decorative
whiskey bottles fashioned in the shape
of government officials from first
settlement. For the Allens’ installation,
stills were taken from that video and
were printed onto canvas. What makes
these photographs effective, aside from
their overwhelming size, taking up the
entire frame of the canvas and repetition
(each image is repeated three times per
floor), is the relaxed and comfortable
subject which has been achieved
through Dicken’s compassion, respect
and understanding. This reinstates
Aboriginal pride and dignity even in the
face of adversity. There is no denying
that Aboriginal alcohol use changed
significantly after colonisation. Within
weeks of the arrival of the First Fleet, the
first pubs opened and this would shape
the way Australian society developed over
the next few decades. Often Aboriginal
laborers were paid in alcohol or tobacco.
Media usually indulges in portraying
unilateral stereotypes of Aboriginal
alcohol consumption and the associated
problems but does not reinforce the fact
that white Australian society shares the
same problems.
Karla’s Aboriginality and sexuality
profoundly informs her work, yet
her insight and breadth of artistic
practice both embrace the notion of
identity politics deeply and also work
with universal human experiences.
Although Indigenous Australians have
experienced some social and political
gains, particularly with regard to the
movement towards reconciliation, there
is very little momentum in improving
indigenous social conditions and official
recognition of indigenous rights and
history. Reluctant to accept the status
quo, Dickens, like other urban Aboriginal
artists, continues to use every means
available to give voice to contemporary
truths through her art, thereby engaging
in a cross-cultural dialogue. This is
Dickens’ preoccupation and strength: to
explore the dichotomy of being a part of
a living dynamic Australian Aboriginal
culture and her role as a custodian of
stories of a tragic and turbulent past. Her
work symbolises both permanence and
transformation and the ongoing dialogue
between the two to promote healing.

photography Tom Psomotrogas

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