Die Frau ohne Schatten – The Woman Without Shadow by Djon Mundine

Die Frau ohne Schatten – The Woman Without Shadow by Djon Mundine

From the Black Madonna catalogue (Australia Council of the Arts)

Die Frau ohne Schatten – The Woman Without Shadow[1] –Karla Dickens and the Black Madonna

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters

Suzanne by Leonard Cohen, 1966.

Leonard Cohen wrote his wistful poem, ‘Suzanne’ in the year before Karla’s birth reflecting on an enigmatic woman; more muse than siren perhaps; in a wider sense pondering on the endless search for meaning, love, affection and some form of truth on the sea of life? The artwork of Karla Dickens is a woman’s story. In many ways it touches upon my story, and an interrogation of myself. Through her expression Karla takes the every day things and discarded material, rubbish, transforming them into things spiritual and sacred and meaningful by her association or ritual use of them in her art and her experiences. This application, a layering or tattooing even, creates an embodiment in the painting, to give bodily form and substance, to more than just a visual gesture

Memories are really led by the way they are encoded and the ability and imagination of each personal mind for storage and retrieval. The Black Madonna is Karla’s revisiting a subliminal, historical, and spiritual, memory. Memories can be colourful, torn into strips and individual threads, furry on the edges, and catch your attention as they flutter gently in the winds of your mind. They re-form and are recollected from the myriad of life’s everyday meetings, encounters and experiences. One has many meetings, and interactions, strange, strong, subtle, good, bad and indifferent. Many seem insignificant at the time but in time assume a central position to the pathways of your life.

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 having had a previous life in strangers homes and hands. The intense collage serves to provide depth to the flatly painted images.

Karla Dickens

The use of such cloth is an action of revitalisation or retrieval. Given the terrible colonial history of Australia many Aboriginal people’s lives are a retrieval and revitalisation.  The use of appendages and attachments is more than Carnivalle frivolity; its effect is to bristle, to shiver, to brim over with love, life and spiritual power. To recreate an embodiment of something lost, of yourself perhaps. In Arnhem Land Aboriginal people decorate important and sacred images and objects and themselves with feathered string. When the Macassans came to these northern shores from around 1621 they brought with them brightly coloured fabrics that were highly valued by Aboriginal people and to this day lengths cloth of this kind are given as gifts themselves or to wrap special gifts [cycad bread, ochre or clay in ritual exchanges. Some of this cloth is torn into strips and attached to sacred objects in place of, and to complement the traditional down feather string tassels that enrich the visual strength of what is an important manifestation of a creative spirit. After the death of individual people clothes and other cloth is torn apart and burnt in a cleansing ritual to remove the residual negative spiritual power.

Karla’s obsession in attending to detail and the structuring in her art reveal an industrious personality. Her life is tangible and has depth.

She works hard at her craft. Possibly its an attempt to keep her life to a structure, creating a form of culture of her own.

In the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita[2]; to demonstrate his divine nature, Krishna grants Arjuna the boon of cosmic vision and allows the prince to see his ‘Universal Form’. He temporarily reveals that he is fundamentally both the ultimate essence of Being in the universe and also its material body.

The Aboriginal world begins when a creative spirit awakes with the dawn, sees their shadow take form, then tracks the water flowing to the coast, seeing different birds, animals and insects, naming them in song and dance, animating them and beginning the natural life cycle of the world.  Thus in pre-contact times an Aboriginal life could be described as a song – what now happens to us with the loss of our languages?

It is believed by some Aboriginal people that a spirit dwells within each of us [a soul- dreaming] 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 and block our vision. We Aboriginal people decorate ourselves to perform at particular times of attendance at ritual and revelatory experience. The decorative and mental preparation may seem long and intense against the actual resultant performance time.  Although the action is often described or thought to be of the individual assuming at representation of a creative spirit, our beautified form is how our body, our personal life essence actually is all the time – a memory insistence. We only are able to see this true vision at certain moments.

What is Karla’s obsession with the Black Madonna? The form of the female spirit in the recent work moves through a number of compositions and figurations in Karla’s expression; Christian icon, Buddhist form, Mirror Mimih figure, and others. Karla’s use of icons and other Christian imagery is interesting given her past. After the church refused ro bury her grandmother and her mother’s brother because of their lifestyle and circumstances of their deaths, her family wouldn’t allow her to attend church or religious instruction [Christian].

In the prologue to the Japanese film Ju-on [he Grudge, 2002], it states that when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage or extreme sorrow, the emotions are left behind and a curse is born, and this overpowering, negative emotion will kill anyone who comes into the place. The curse gathers in that place of death. Those who encounter it will be consumed by its fury. Kayako the ghost of the adult woman of the film appears as an eerie deadly shadow entity. The way that these ghosts manifest themselves as if they were part of the living, leaving handprints and footprints behind. The colonial occupation history of Australia is one of treachery, extreme brutality and killing and exploitation of the worst possible kind to be almost beyond belief.   Is this ‘curse’perhaps the true history of Australia?

‘I wasn’t crying about mothers,’ he said rather indignantly. ’I was crying because I can’t get my shadow to stick on. Besides I wasn’t crying.’

Peter Pan.

The story of Peter Pan is the story of boys who have no parents, who’ve lost their mothers. Are all the boys of Neverland ‘motherless’ because they are dead? When Peter Pan loses his shadow is this the loss of mother? Wendy [the little mother] kindly and maternally sews Peter’s shadow back to his feet to fix this and ‘make it better’. When Wendy goes to Neverland to be a surrogate mother is she also already dead?

In the Aboriginal performance, Fire, Fire Burning Bright [2002], the re-telling of the massacre of local Kimberly people for killing a bullock has a curious humorous ending where the spirits of the murdered men wander the land encountering a party of prospectors who, not knowing they are talking to ghosts, offer them food and drink to the amusement of the audience.

A simple concept of ‘otherness’ could run in two strands; firstly the idea of your own personal entity [as against others]; it’s attributes, loveliness’ and ability to project love. In the film ‘The Others’ the people finally discover that why they seem to be out of step with the world is that they are truly  ‘other’ in that they are in fact dead; like many Aboriginal people, a shadowy male figure lingering outside the white house of Australian history. [Tracey Moffatt, Plantation, 2009].

Given such a wretched and shameful Australian race history to the present day regarding Aboriginal people; for people of mixed Aboriginal heritage, a question hangs there; ‘what is the meaning of your Aboriginal descent, and what its position in your life? It is crucial to a restoration of a balance both personal and societal. A maternal [paternal] shadow lives with you – a Black Madonna or maybe our own shadow life; are they ‘looking at in the mirror’. How do you rationalize your shadow life, can art alone do this?

I was taken away from my parents at 11months and institutionalised at Bomaderry, then Cootamundra until I was fifteen.

I went into services for white people where I learnt how to cook and clean and look after their children. This however didn’t make me a loving mother to my own children as I hadn’t known love myself from the start.

Upon reflection I realise I kept my children at arms length, afraid that they would be taken and would be hurt as my parents must have been. No-one knew how I felt. The fear of rejection and the guilt of being a ‘bad mother’ led me to drinking. My eldest daughter had to assume a mothering position for the younger children. For twenty years days nights ran into each other. It was all a haze.

Tears come to my eyes when I think of that time. I wish I had been able to love my children then. I couldn’t but I can do now.

Alice Hinton-Bateup, Koori artist, 1988/9[3],

Does the Black Madonna represent an imperfect Madonna – the imperfect mother [if only because she is black] and possibly resented or guilt-ridden as a result? Badtjala artist Fiona Foley has worked with the issue of the effects of colonization on Aboriginal women; involvement, interaction, and integration, but largely institutional abuse and slavery.

Don’t go lookin’ through that old camphor box woman,
You know those old things only make you cry.
When you dream upon that little bunny rug
It makes you think that life has passed you by
There are days when you wish the world would stop woman,
But then you know some wounds would never heal
But when I browse the early pages of the children
It’s then I know exactly how you feel.

Cootamundra Wattle by John Williamson, 1986[4].

Cootamundra is famous for a number of things; the birthplace of cricketer Donald Bradman and the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Training Home. Aboriginal children of mixed descent were forcibly removed from their parents and placed into homes for a form of re-education to become good ‘white’ members of Australian society. In this context the Cootamundra Wattle’s now somewhat ironic words could assume a different reading.

The Black Madonna is more than just a black woman but should read as a female creative spiritual force; a universal mother figure. A few years after Karla’s grandmother; Myrtle, was born in a humpy [1911] at Mascot [Sydney], a world away in Europe, Richard Strauss finished his opera about a woman without shadow; without child[1919], about the interaction of the real world and the spirit world, and how the players concerned are love blessed through the birth of a child.

It isn’t very good
In the Dark Dark Wood,
In the middle of the night
When there isn’t any light;
It isn’t very good
In the Dark Dark Wood


Following it’s creation in The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg  [1895] by Florence Kate Upton, the Golliwogg was adopted as a mascot by British jam manufacturer James Robertson and Sons in 1910. The term ‘golliwogg’ referencing the resultant character in children’s books and toys has been a racist slur for black people or people of colour world-wide including Australia ever since.

Gollywog equals blackness but is black bad?

Black heart, black thoughts, black humour, black deeds, black mark, but Black is beautiful!

Black is beautiful – Jesus was black

Muhammad Ali [attributed]

The Black Madonnas in question are paintings, usually Christian icons, in Byzantine style, in Europe dated from between the 11th and 15th centuries.  According to Wikipedia here are 450 to 500 such images in Europe with 180 in France alone.

The first of Karla’s Black Madonna representations actually took the form of leather shadow puppets and the shape of the Sheela na Gigs, the Irish female creative spirit. Karla is of mixed Wiradjuri and Irish descent.  Leather shadow puppets themselves are from a history thousands of years old itself.

Many Black Madonna images in historical paintings are that colour from years of smoke from candles and lanterns, drawing attention to them. In fact cleaning them was resisted by devotees and  congregations, becoming black maybe is a natural or desired progression. We don’t need to peel layers to be who we are. The Black Madonna is that figurine that accretes a patina over time eventually blackening.  Is the Black Madonna the mature intelligent woman of experience, the woman of the world, an independent person not cast in the male gaze?

Is the Black Madonna in this context, the seeing, the facing your Aboriginal lineage.  A lineage of numbers of gentle maternal spirit beings, who listen to the tortured thoughts of mortals and try to comfort them – explaining the simple joys of a human experience. From a spiritual point of view, the artistic vision moves back and forth; blossoming into color to stark beautiful black and a ‘white light’ pearl shell. To perceive the realities of humankind one must experience life and racist slurs. One must in effect transcend any idea of the black negative, getting beyond otherness; in acknowledging  your ‘otherness’, finding what it means to your psyche without remaining locked into some form or lesser or subalternate position. This is no ‘uncle tom [thomasina]’ however.

I Ching for Sunday

Kun: Oppression, Don’t give up, even if something is worrying you. Make the most of this circumstance and transform every difficulty into a stimulus so that you can go ahead. Have faith in destiny which always changes into good. Luck is for the bravest!

The role of the artist  – heal yourself – heal the world. In 1960; the decade of Karla’s birth, Yorta Yorta singer Jimmy Little from Cummmerganja mission had a hit song with ‘The Shadow of the Boomerang’¹ from the film of the same name. Shadows are our souls which we can never leave; nor can our shadow exist independent of us Shadow like photographic image and film follow us and infiltrate in our daily lives but are now are the expression we control and project They comfortingly hover around us and return us to our past and point to our future.

Djon Mundine

Indigenous Curator- Contemporary Art

Campbelltown Art Centre

With the assistance of John von Sturmer.

[1] [An Opera (1919) by Richard Strauss, libretto by Hoffmann Stahl.]

[2] Bhagavadgita |?b?g?v?d?g?t?; ?bäg?väd-| (also Gita) Hinduism

a poem composed between the 2nd century bc and the 2nd century ad and incorporated into the Mahabharata. Presented as a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and his divine charioteer Krishna, it stresses the importance of doing one’s duty and of faith in God.

Gita |?g?t?| |?gi?t?| |?git?|


short for Bhagavadgita .

[3] “Ruth Whitbourne (in collaboration with Garage Graphix Aboriginal Program Artist Alice Hiton Batup) Ruth’s Story, 1988/1989.”

Aratjara :art of the first Australians :traditional and contemporary works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists /

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, DÜsseldorf, 24 April – 4 July 1993 …
[et al.] Köln : DuMont Buchverlag, 1993 379 p. : ill. (some col.), maps ; 30 cm.

Page 324

Image 142

Caption “Ruth Whitbourne (in collaboration with Garage Graphix Aboriginal Program Artist Alice Hiton Batup) Ruth’s Story, 1988/1989.”

[4] COOTAMUNDRA WATTLE, Words and Music by John Williamson. © 1986 EMUSIC PTY LTD