Karla Dickens

There is a growing rebellion over the silence and inactivity of our country’s powerbrokers and general populace regarding climate change. We are living in a time when this rebellion is being portrayed as an inconvenience and calls for protest to only take place through established means.

Lismore-based Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens has long been involved in green politics – she started with Greenpeace some thirty years ago. The same arguments and discussions keep being repeated over and over, year in and year out. For Dickens it has all been said and no-one is listening – so now it is about taking time to listen to the land itself and to build a deeper understanding of Country.

In 2018 the Kandos School of Cultural Adaption developed an expansive project that involved ambitious collaborations by nine artists with farmers, scientists, Aboriginal knowledge holders, chefs and rural innovators. Dickens was teamed with Bruce Pascoe, Indigenous writer of mixed Bunurong, Yuin and Aboriginal Tasmanian heritage and author of the best-selling book, Dark Emu, an acclaimed work on early Aboriginal agriculture.

In February 2019, at a time of extreme heat and with bushfires nearby, Dickens, Pascoe, Brendan Blacklock and children from Bingara Central School made footage for a short film titled Mother’s Little Helpers. The film is the central work of her upcoming exhibition at Linden New Art in Melbourne titled ‘My Mother’s Keeper’, which also includes garments made for the film and film stills.

Dickens was excited to be involved in a collaborative project, and confront her fears concerning the environment and work outside of the studio. Initially she saw the project as a ‘kooky educational satire’ where Uncle Bruce Pascoe is a Black Santa giving the masses a commercial serving of Black Education, helped by Black Fairies. It ended up being quite the opposite but no less powerful.

Given Pascoe’s presence there was an expectation that the film would be filled with words about the damage being done to Country by European agriculture. Instead it was pervaded by silence and the sound of dry rasping winds and buzzing flies. We see death everywhere – burnt and ringbarked trees, skulls, broken farm gates, the trash of consumerism, dry thistles, feathers, dust and desolation.

As the central character, Pascoe feels, looks and situates himself in the landscape. Even without words Pascoe says so much. Yes, he brings with him a ‘star’ status and that in itself within the context of this broken landscape is telling, but while he may at times look like a wizard he’s really a messenger or symbol – one who represents Mother Earth. He wears a long loose jacket with the words ‘Mother Earth Country’ embroidered in handwritten form on its back and images of traditional Indigenous food sources such as yam daisies and kangaroo grasses are printed around the hem.

For Dickens asking a man to play the role of Mother Nature was a way of saying that men need to take on a more mothering role, to be respectful of women and acknowledge a shared responsibility to a Mother. Pascoe was happy to take on that role.

The Mother has been a recurring anchor in Dickens’ practice for decades – revealing a kind of spiritual/cultural Ecofeminism. She says that even at times when she has created works that speak specifically about abuse and rape of women, the earth was also in her mind and psyche. In this work Pascoe is the Mother and the Mother is him and the traumatised landscape mirrors the trauma of Indigenous Australians.

When the children are introduced, initially at play and then coming together with the ‘Mother Earth Country’ figure, there is a glimmer of hope and possibility of spiritual renewal. Each child wears a hooded cloak, again with large words inscribed on the back of each – ‘respect’, ‘listen’, ‘culture’, ‘learn’, ‘protect’ and ‘cure’.

And yet silence also pervades these scenes serving to undercut the innocence and fun of the child and telescoping a more serious future role for them on this planet.

Here the film is both didactic and strangely dream-like. Dickens’ work is always powerful and outward facing with strong and at times confronting imagery. Here she makes it clear as stated in her blog – ‘it’s the viewers’ responsibility to look hard, learn quick and listen deeply.’

The children in the film may be mother’s little helpers, not the kind that the Rolling Stones referred to, but more like guardians and supporters of nature. Dickens confirms this with her post film poem in the lines:

‘No coloured pills for mother today
overdosing on crooked Bandaids
shakes from withdrawal stay
Too late for flowers
hold her hand
hug her tight
love her through long, dark nights’

Dickens says, ‘I believe we have a choice to create change if we stand together and act. I am more hopeful on more days than I am not. Action and knowledge smooths my powerlessness in a stressful reality.’

This preview was originally printed in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2020

Karla Dickens: Mother’s Little Helper
22 February – 9 August 2020
Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney

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