Karla Dickens

A Wiradjuri woman living in regional New South Wales, Karla Dickens is known for her often provocative reflections on Australian culture, past and present. Combining and repurposing material elements in unexpected ways, she takes on a three-tiered politic of marginalised identity, frequently tackling issues of race, gender and sexuality.

Karla Dickens is a weaver, a collagist of fabric and concepts, including slippery ones that may be difficult to quite grasp singularly. At the centre of her practice is the sense of coming home to difficult truths. At times she can be controversial. For example, in her 2013 artwork January 26, Day of Mourning (winner of the 2013 NSW Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize) she embroidered an Australian flag (found at the Lismore tip) with a series of black crosses, transforming the object into a symbol of mourning and Indigenous remembrance. Other works are marked by an intrinsic playfulness and whimsy to the point of mischief. Artist Profile visited Dickens at home in Lismore, NSW.

What are you working on right now? Your practice is quite diverse so I’m interested in hearing about the current iteration.
At the moment I’m getting ready to make a short film with an Aboriginal writer, activist and Elder named Bruce Pascoe, who wrote a book, Dark Emu. It’s for the Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival in Kandos (in central western NSW) next year. I’m in a total position of privilege working with Uncle Bruce on this project, which is titled A Wish List, embracing a spirit of experimentation and collaboration. Without giving too much away we are developing a kooky educational satire. I’ve also started a new body of work – ‘A Dickensian Circus’ – celebrating the lives of Indigenous circus performers and boxers from touring troupes who travelled the country entertaining crowds at fairs and carnivals. The work is playful and lighter in spirit than other works in past years.

How did you come across the tent boxers?
I know and have known quite a lot of Elders who talk fondly of their days boxing. Their backs straighten, their eyes light up and often one shoulder will bend forward when they talk of boxing with great pride. Their pride inspired me to explore and research the troupes while some of the old fellas are still alive. The history of the country always comes into my work – being an Indigenous Australian, you can’t really look at today without looking at the past.

I’ve noticed in many of your works some fairly strong feminist undertones: the idea of the ‘Black Madonna’ (2009) and the textile series ‘Bound’ (2016). Do you consciously take on feminist histories or do they arise more organically from your place as a female artist and as an Indigenous woman making art?
I’ve just had to deal with certain issues, and art is the safest way I know how to do that. The lives and abuse of Indigenous women in this country have always had so little light shone on them. Exploring my own identity has involved feeling the stories of my ancestors; my great-grandmother Mary Anderson was taken away, used as a domestic worker without pay, grossly mistreated and raped. She died in a Sydney psychiatric hospital, blind and emotionally tortured.

The series ‘Workhorse’ (2015), ‘Warrior Woman’ (2018), ‘Bound’ (2016) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (2016) are historical but also personal. Transgenerational trauma implicit in these works is interwoven into my own history. Creating work relating to these issues gives a voice to women across the board.

When I was looking at your artwork I was thinking of that rallying cry ‘the personal is the political’. It occurred to me that these two things may be quite enmeshed for you – the personal and the political – and that the line between the two may at times be very thin. Does that resonate?
Yes, it does. Breaking silence and speaking the truth (whether the speaking is verbal or visual) is a political act. When others identify, hear and connect with that it becomes a political action.

I loved something you said in an earlier interview with Virginia Fraser, ‘The darker you’ve seen, the lighter the light becomes’, which perhaps invokes the role of meditation and the notion of protection in your practice.
I, as a woman, have needed to do a lot of healing. Time in my studio and the act of making art is my safe place and meditation. I seem to need a lot of deep listening and thinking time to consider things. The making of art is a balancing act of darkness and light.

Let’s talk about your ideas on film. Your practice seems to be loosely aligned with ideas of ‘new materialism’ and I want to explore how you deal with the physical in your current practice.
Well, for my first film, The Honey and The Bunny (2011) I had the help of a filmmaker; I think I drove him crazy in my communication because I didn’t have any of the language of film – I knew collage so I spoke of film in those terms. I think in layers and speak in layers. Anyone that works with me needs a brave heart and an open mind, and I’m not the best in verbalising my vision until it’s finished. Film seems to grow like the rest of my collage or canvas works. I had a subject I was dealing with (the South Sydney Rabbitohs). The approach was more feral than organic, really. I chose the subjects and the location, then showed up and worked with what we had.
A very similar rhythm is unfolding in my collaboration with Bruce Pascoe. I work from a feeling, like going into a kitchen with lots of ingredients but no strict recipe; tasting it as it goes and adding along the way. The risk factor excites me. I’ve been blessed with perfect weather – the full moon, a thunderstorm – every time I’ve been putting a film work together.

Do you find that when you’re making a film you respond to those external influences, like the quality of landscape or other things that might be occurring in the moment?
Yes, I don’t know how else to work. I made a short film last year as a public artwork – The Queen’s Road (2017) – and used a lot of images of Queen Elizabeth from when she toured in 1954, along with a gorgeous Indigenous girl, Cindy Payden. We went down to the beach to do a scene and a big storm was rolling in, the light was hopeless, then it broke just long enough for us to get what we needed with a rainbow arriving to helps us that matched her tutu. At times like that I can’t help but feel the ancestors are involved. A work can lose its freshness if you take too much control. The things that you think you don’t want end up being the best things anyway.

Especially if you have a knack for finding the best things at the tip.
Yes, one of my greatest gifts is finding the maddest, cheapest random goodies. Maybe I have pirate blood. I’m always arriving home with rare diamonds in the boot and they find their way into my art practice.

Was that a part of your practice when you were an art student at National Art School, or did it come later?
It has always been part of my life – due to the necessity of being an artist in this country where you are never well rewarded – I would walk around Darlinghurst, finding certain things and using them. Now, on Saturday mornings my daughter and I religiously get up early and go treasure hunting at garage sales. It’s probably one of the most social aspects of my art practice. I love that serendipity and randomness; what I use to make art and create at home.

When I started using fabric in my practice I realised how people are unwittingly connected to the work because of their own memories. With the fabric they’ll say ‘oh, my auntie had a tablecloth in that fabric, or my nana had curtains just like that’. They are unconsciously opening their hearts and memories, and as an artist you then have a small window where the viewer has their guard down. I love using farming equipment and tools when I’m speaking about my people’s history, as a lot of this country was built on the backs of amazing farmers, great horsemen and women and incredibly hard workers. These objects help to give meaning and tell the truth of that history.

Yes, I was thinking there is a history of action imbued in those objects. Is there an aspect of gendered labour at play, for instance in your use of white doilies which evoke certain forms of women’s domestic labour – or conversely, with your use of farm equipment which is so often associated with the masculine?
Yes there is, though it’s important to note the women’s work (such as that of my great-grandmother and grandmother) also included farm labour alongside the men, so I don’t always see the objects as being gender specific.

One last question: what you are doing in Lismore when you’re not making art?
I left Sydney when I was twenty-seven and I knew I wanted to make art. Living in regional Australia is affordable, giving my daughter and me a rich life with a huge garden, our dog Jerry, a mob of rabbits and lots of creative space. Bundjalung country is stunning with a great community.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2019

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