Conversations with a Crow essay by Djon Mundine

Conversations with a Crow essay by Djon Mundine

page 40 issue 212 August 2008 Art Monthly Australia

Karla Dickens [b.1967],Wiradjuri people

‘My people will disappear for a time but when they return artists will lead them.’ Louis Riel [Méetis leader, 1844-1885, att.]

Karla is Wiradjuri, her parents are from Mascot, Sydney. Karla Dickens was born in Sydney in 1967; the Year of the Referendum, that gave Aboriginal people human status within the nation called Australia. A double dawn for Aboriginal people; a major national political and social shift, and an innocent new born seemingly as yet without any connection to her history and Aboriginal heritage. As she tells, the process of moving from childhood to the present was a colourful and, at times, destructive journey of self discovery. Ironically and literally a truly dark but noble ‘Dickensian’ life.  In the 1970s feminists spoke of being three times discriminated against – being Aboriginal, being a woman, and being gay. Karla’s Aboriginality and sexuality do profoundly inform her work – yet her insight and breadth of artistic practice both embraces the notion of identity politics deeply and yet works with universal human experiences. Her work truly fosters an intra and cross cultural dialogue through the forum of contemporary art.

‘I guess the most important lesson I’ve learnt over the years is the fact that no matter what colour, what sexual presence, what age, how much money you have in the bank, whether you’re ready or not, death will touch as all.’

Karla Dickens, personal conversation 2008.

We are all victims of our times yet the best of us respond to and triumph over the personal and social that attempt to restrict and contain us. Artistic life itself is to challenge and never merely accept.We Aboriginal people trace our families years and years into the distant past punctuated by ocassional adoptions and disapearances from more public life only to pop up later. It would seem that in Aboriginal social life that birth is only marginally celebrated compared to the long elaborate never ending funerals of death. But now with a child of her own, what is Karla’s obsession with death?  We do not celebrate death itself but as a transition; we do not celebrate death itself but the remembrance of where we come from; physically, socially, and spiritually – to reaffirm these connections to the past and to our future potential – the place we are being led to. Each death any of us encounter each time  confronts us with our own mortality and for Karla the recent past is one of a number of  deaths of special significant people who in one way are still really with us. Karla; ‘When I prayed I would talk to my dead grandmother. … The dead kept me company, I would share my secrets and found great comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. Connections have only grown over the years and I hold the dead in high regard, believing they are keeping me safe and guiding me spiritually though life, love and struggles. My friends and ancestors give me strength and a real meaning in life.’

‘Shadows started to reappear in my painting. At times the shadow has represented my ancestors, other times my demons or inner struggles. A shadow can be a region of darkness where light is blocked. A cross section of a shadow is a two-dimensional silhouette. In some cultures a shadow is simaliar to a ghost, or a representation of God’s presence, like a halo. A shadow can also represent an alternate reality whose dimension overlap ours.’

Karla Dickens, personal conversation 2008.

In the language of north-east Arnhem Land the word Wunggulli for spirit or soul is also the word for shadow [and photograph]. Often a shadow was used in coastal New South Wales as a  silhouette template for human figures in the thousands of rock engravings that honeycomb the whole terrain. In a direct sense the flat figure sculptures subconsciously reference this thousand years old Aboriginal tradition.  Shadows run through the paintings here; irregular pieces of brightness and dark, of enclosure and open fleeing space. In Australia to be in the shadow is not an unpleasant thing; a place where you safely watch the world struggling under the ever-present powerful sun.   It is believed by some Aboriginal people that a spirit [our soul – our dreaming] dwells within each of us that is a constant of truth and goodness untouched and undisturbed by the trials, problems and colonial history that scar our outer features, dull our senses so we cannot remain simply naturally sensible, and block our vision. This small group of artworks are a special set of a larger number touched by these times and by Karla’s life and achievements, now more maturely attempting to rationalise her beginnings. Referencing the purity of tradition and adapting to the present reality of her life as a successful present day Aboriginal woman.  By exploring the mechanisms by which social and personal limits are set and maintained, unexamined cultural assumptions and dominant ideas are illuminated. We see the expectations and the structures that inform and support them revealed, often as they unravel. Such illuminations and revelations of the racist history of Australian colonialism and it’s repercussions,  are at the core of the artworks in this collection

on a bare branch

a crow lands

autumn dusk

In many cultures if not most the crow is the harbinger of death, the picker-over of the corpse and scatterer of bones across the land. In the traditional society of Aboriginal south-east everything in the world is divided spiritually, socially and taxonomically into two halves [moieties] called Eagle Hawke and Crow! Crow has a higher meaning. Such an appearance of a crow would inform or foretell us of a close death. An extemely intelligent social being, crows gather at the death of one of their own, to chant and wail at the loss. Karla; ‘for me I believe my ancestors are visiting if the crows appear. The crow gives me strength to fly above my shadows as I walk this life searching for connection and meaning. As I sit and write these words four crows talk to me as they sit in a gum tree out my back window.’


waves come into the cove

one at a time

To this day Aboriginal people remain socially and economically at the bottom of Australian society – mixing with fellow social  travelers, refugees, newly arrived immigrants, the unemployed, and now alternative life stylers. Is it worse to be called a ‘coon’ or a ‘hippy’ or ‘a feral’ or ‘poor white trash’ – is there an order of disdain? Certainly the north coast of New South Wales provides such a rich fertile environment and mixing pot  – Karla’s art is a regathering of pretty things; discarded materials, torn bright cloth, shreds of delicate embroidery, flowers, applique; placed, overlaid like binding the corpse. Velvet can be of ‘Carnivale’, the ‘Harliquin’, and life, joy and laughter; or the black velvet that you wear to funerals and to line the coffin with. Callously, the term ‘black velvet’ is a racist term for the sexualising and abuse of Aboriginal woman and young girls in the colonisation process.  This event; the catastrophic collision of Aboriginal and western societies, in numbers of dead is like remenances of the horrific mass killings of WWI, echos in the immessurable falling dead, except no-one is exempt in this instance; men, woman and children; old and young. Catastrophes can be fast – a nightmarish blur of actions, noise, light, movement and violence. Or the dream-like slow motion of inevitable decline and collapse – a type of tortured slow motion push and shove; a death by a thousand cuts, a loss by a thousand small, seemingly insignificant poisonous actions by both individuals and state. These scenes are beyond the ‘bad acid’ or mescaline trip of ‘hippy art’.

This body of work has been just as enjoyable to create as my visits have always been.The heavy collage helps to build rich spaces and also like my memories the collage comes from different times, with the fabric found in op-shops all have a previous life in strangers homes and hands. Unlike other collage works I have made in the past, the pieces are structured on the collage and then painted on, apposed to the collage working as a second with the paint. …

I am a recovery drug addict and acholchic and have been sitting on the wagon for 17 years now, while on the wagon along with the time spent on the streets I have grown to know hard outcomes of the disease one being death. Also as apart of the gay community death has become a known, felt and respected.

Karla Dickens, personal conversation 2008.

After twenty solo exhibitions, over thirty group shows, a large number of community based projects and various teaching experience, Dickens has emerged into a successful and well respected artist, who however lives in taking up the spirit of humility in contrast to the present day’s art desire for celebrity and fame.  The timing of the present exhibition auspiciously coincides with recent significant historical events [concurrently both the Year of the Apology and the time of the Intervention; the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away]. Some would say however, to nurture artists you need time — for their education, for them to gain experience. You just can’t do that in 10 years; it takes 20 or 30. After seeing the work here we await the future with great expectation and the next great outpouring. The entire personal structural development here is complex and organic perhaps as a symptom of a widening values rift between the art creative, the personal and the market and political system and the people it treats, the audience. The work embodies a life and personality covered deeply; tattooed, with personal blooming visual vignettes, who sits down to recount who she is to her astounded audience. It is the the nobility of Karla’s upright character; fantastic, and yet a realistic record of actual events reflecting the political and social uncertainty at the close of a conservative period – the Howard regime.


incense unrolls


Djon Mundine OAM Indigenous Curator – Contemporary Art

Campbelltown Art Centre, PO Box 57 Campbelltown, 2560, NSW Ph. 02 46454249

p.59, p.61, p.70 – Harold Stewart, A Net of Fireflies, Boston and Tokyo, Charles E. Tuttle Inc., 1960.