In Focus, Arts Northern Rivers

In Focus, Arts Northern Rivers

Lismore artist and collage-maker, Karla Dickens constructs beautiful, unique works full of colour and shadow using objects and artefacts often sourced on the side of the road or at the tip. We spoke to her about her path to art and her latest project inspired by those legendary underdogs, the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

As a child Karla Dickens was a bowerbird; a collector and collage-maker. Now in her adult years she is making a name for herself as an artist, constructing and painting beautiful, unique works full of colour and shadow – and with a healthy dash of irreverence – using objects and artefacts often sourced at the tip. We spoke to Karla about her path to art and her latest project, which has been inspired by a football club.

Tell us a bit about your history, where did you grow up and where did you study?

I grew up in South Sydney, in a Wiradjuri family who had some bad experiences as a result of their aboriginal background. So, when I was young I was not encouraged by my family to identify as Aboriginal. In fact I remember my Grandmother used to say to me, ‘Tell ’em you’re Italian, don’t go out in the sun.’ I think she just wanted to protect me from the bad stuff, and she figured if I could avoid being labelled, in the long run I’d be better off.

I went to the National Art School in Darlinghurst and graduated in 1993. Even though I majored in painting I was always interested in collage. As a kid I always had a pair of scissors and a pot of glue in my hands. I loved cutting and sticking, and I was always dragging home odd things I found on the street.

When I was 11 or 12 I discovered a love of drawing and I mainly decided to go to art school to develop those skills. I was too young to know what I wanted to say in my art. In those early days I did a lot of life drawing, but most students’ nudes look the same, no matter what their heritage. It wasn’t until I started painting that a sense or essence of aboriginality in my work started to become noticed. Art has been the perfect vehicle for my voice on a number of identity issues.

What about the media you choose for your pieces, which have now become your hallmark fabrics, papers and objects?

I’ve always collected things and used paper and fabric as apart of my work; around 2008 the fabric became the dominating material in all my work. Paint now takes a back seat while a healthy obsession for retro and vintage fabric is my new palate, as I work towards creating the layers, space and depth that I once hoped for with paints. Looking at my wall of fabrics with as many different textures as patterns, colours and time periods, I’m excited by the challenge of finding some order in the chaos to tell a story of my own.

One of the qualities I love about fabric is its ability to trigger a memory of a particular time in a person’s life: grandma had a tablecloth like that, or aunty had curtains, or my sister had a dress. All that is stored away, but can be used to engage people and hopefully it can open doors for people who might not normally be interested in art.

When I need materials, I never have to think twice about whether I walk into an art supply store or a tip. The love of hunting and collecting is just as much a part of the artwork as the process of tying all elements together to complete a work for an exhibition.

As much as there is a certain standard of quality in materials and finishes for art hung or placed in the fine art arena, I always hold elements of rawness and roughness dear. Sleek and glamorous would not tell my stories; it’s simply not me.

And what about your creative process, how do your works evolve, and can you tell us about the most recent works that are about to open at Ray Hughes gallery in Sydney?

I feel out an idea or narrative, and when I’m as sure as I can be I stay focused on that body of work, sometimes for a number of years. For example I worked with crows for some time as I looked at death and my own grieving process, I then worked with The Black Madonna for a number of years exploring faith and protection. For over two years now I’ve worked with and around a communal conversation focusing on the Rabbitohs logo, football and a sense of belonging.

The longer I stay focused on a series, the more I understand the motif and the more I answer my own questions on why I had originally embraced it.

Even though the South Sydney Rabbitohs are loved and mean so much to so many, I developed and looked closely at my own family’s connections, and of the team’s to the area and the history. As a child I had no choice about whether I would be heading off to football ovals weekend after weekend, with football on the television, and talked about over the kitchen table. Yet the game has not been my interest at all in this series. I’ve enjoyed reflecting on the Indigenous inclusion in the game, the sense of belonging, the struggle of working class people, the fight of the underdog, and the power of a logo in the landscape, who it talks to and how.

In metropolitan Sydney the Rabbitohs Footie Club is very much a part of modern Indigenous history and culture. As Djon Mundine says, Football is the modern day corroboree. It’s still a gathering of peoples maybe not traditional, but still a worthy gathering.

The background to the Rabbitohs name comes from the 20s and 30s during the depression when people – some of them Indigenous – used to walk the streets selling rabbits, and calling out ‘Rabbitoh, Rabbitoh.’

I’ve used the logo over and over again in these pieces, with a repeating use of black net in a lot of these new works, in some cases just in the background like a shadow, or hovering over the whole work, it has become my new motif for darkness, a darkness of history and of shadows that linger.

I received a scholarship from Arts NSW to help create this work, giving me the means to make a short film, and a collection of photos. The film “Honey and the Bunny” stars the stunning Destiny Haz Arrived, a Bundjalung drag queen, and Charlie the Rabbit, the Rabbitohs’ mascot, who fall in love. It’s a queer fable, a love story speaking of hope, dreams, and enduring dreams of the underdog.

What was it like to get the call from Ray Hughes?

It was amazing, I have never been someone to visit galleries or openings regularly, yet I always made a beeline to The Hughes Gallery whenever in Sydney. I’m unable to think of one exhibition I’ve seen there that hasn’t impressed me. For a relationship with my first commercial gallery I couldn’t be happier.

My daughter Ginger and I met with Ray and his son Evan, all went well, and like most Rabbithos stories, the show that was first exhibited last year at FirstDraft in Sydney has been given a second life, with new work created for The Ray Hughes Gallery.

Current exhibitions:
Ray Hughes Gallery 270 Devonshire Street Darlinghurst opens 29 September
Bungaree touring exhibition of 16 contemporary Indigenous Australians, starts at Mosman Art Gallery Cnr Art Gallery Way and Myahgah Road, 30 August
Feminage the logic of feminist collage, on until September 15
Works on show at the Art Gallery of NSW in an exhibition called ‘Home’