Karla Dickens describes herself as a menopausal woman pushing 50, with plenty to say and nothing to lose. She is too busy working and going to the tip to be bothered by what people are saying (or not saying) about her. Karla proudly reminds us she’s a mum and her daughter Ginger motivates Karla to work hard for very little money. She’s been a solidly practising artist since finishing her Bachelor degree at the National Art School in Darlinghurst in 2000. Historically, the work ethic has always been an important part of Aboriginal life. Something she recognised in her own family and always understood to be a fact of life for Aboriginal people.
In the group exhibition Hereby Make Protest, held at Carriageworks in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern, Karla created a series of masks. In Assimilated Warriors (2014) she uses found masks, raffia, teeth and feathers, all pointing to an identity built on the “tribal” being meshed with the complexities of a contemporary self. She uses fragments of farm equipment as bold and aggressive visual statements loaded with meaning. Labouring and farming is a shared blue-collar backdrop in Australia’s identity; unfortunately the idea of the “fair go” has only limited traction for Aboriginal people.
The exhibition focused on the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association (AAPA) and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), organisations which in the 1920s and 30s campaigned for change to advance civil rights for Aboriginal people. Nearly a century on, the change imagined by these early Aboriginal rights activists is still faltering. Mythologies making Aboriginal people appear lazy and thankless are self-serving positions that frequently emerge throughout European colonisation. Disparities and injustices are rarely made out to be a white problem. “The present Australian historical climate is a clearly divided and a politically charged environment of hostility. The great importance of revealing and recognising our erased histories is self-evident in any argument.”
There is a deep knowing in Karla’s work as her culture straddles the acknowledgement of tradition alongside ever-changing progress. And that progress is riddled with obstacles and injustice. Her work also marks a renewal of tradition; there is a clear strength and confidence. The mask is a recurring feature. As well as concealing, a mask also conveys power, demonstrating a protective quality to keep its wearer safe. The viewer is simultaneously challenged by Karla’s work: what is being revealed and what is being concealed.
The pain expressed is raw. Karla’s work is not political for the sake of it. She is driven by her feelings and what comes out is tangible. Its rough and rusty qualities are a reflection of her internal struggles and the necessity to manage her abrasive psyche. When discussing with her representations of the dark aspects of her fears, feelings and understanding about being Aboriginal, as well as her own past, she says “The darker I go in my work, the better I feel.” This necessity to express darkness is further manifested in her trips to the tip and car boot sales. There is a resourcefulness and ingenuity in creating artwork from refuse and the discarded parts of society. It can also be seen as a reference to the readymade art, the found object and Art Povera, an art movement using refuse driven by politics in postwar Italy. Karla’s connection to culture and the value in what country provides is key here.
Aboriginal people have survived catastrophic events for over two centuries: land taken away, children stolen, murders and addiction. These catastrophic events were driven by “the dominant ethos that there was nothing of value in Aboriginal culture – all the value lay in European culture”. This brutal reality visits as inter-generational trauma, which Karla personally understands and has lived with all her life. It was her own experience of substance abuse and turning that pain inwards and onto herself, which began to expose these unspoken troubles. Through overcoming addiction, art became a vehicle though which unspoken anxieties could begin to be expressed.
In 2012 Karla found an Australian flag at the rubbish tip. She carefully stitched black crosses onto it and beaded the Union Jack with shells. The work was awarded the 2013 Parliament of New South Wales Aboriginal Art Prize. The flag becomes both material and immaterial, simultaneously. It had little value in its own right as a piece of cloth; discarded at the tip, it is yet embedded with stoic power when activated as a national ensign. Regardless, it can be turned into beach balls, bikinis and thongs. In the 2005 Cronulla riots it was worn as a cape, like some heroic gesture that would fly its wearer into victory. The question always was: what would actually constitute a victory? Karla feels that there is an aggressiveness in the Australian flag today that encourages racism. She was criticised publicly for her additions to the flag by conservative public commentators (shock jocks) and later feared retribution from right-wing supremacist groups after real threats were made against her life.
When I ask about the significance of the meaning and number of crosses that dot the flag, Karla explains that “They represent death, the cross in some Indigenous symbolism also represents a figure of a person, and they represent Christianity.” The layering of crosses was an honouring of family and ancestors and the sacrifice they made to country for their families and communities. “If I was really serious in a literal representation of death and sacrifice – it would be a lumpy mass of black crosses, there would be no blue.”
Karla’s work seduces the viewer, offering something familiar. At first glance, there is a disarming textile or craft element that makes her work accessible. She is currently working on a series of ceramic alcoholic spirit bottles in the shape of Captain Cook. Each is reworked with additions of beads, shells, feathers and a repainting of Cook’s skin. It’s disturbing to see a dark-skinned Captain Cook and understand him as the genocidal marker that started it all. The works are sculptural and Karla has also created some photographs of faceless Aboriginal men holding these bottles in front of their chest. The effects of grog become amplified in these images.
Cook’s instructions from the British government were, “with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the name of King George III”.  Instead of sticking to a few “convenient situations” he claimed the whole lot. “In a ceremony on 22 August 1770, at a place off the tip of Cape York that he aptly named Possession Island, Cook declared with imperial hubris, peaceful possession of the whole country of which he knew virtually nothing and had barely seen.”
I first saw Karla’s work in a vitrine in 2003 at the Lismore Showground at a Tropical Fruits Inc. arts show. She displayed some delicately beaded dresses emblazoned with the words “Slut” and “Whore”. The works embodied a quality of patience with the meticulous making of domestic craft before revealing their more sinister meanings exposing a darker commentary on domestic violence. I was fascinated to know who could have created these works. A decade or so later we are friends and working artists in this country.
My own background is Greek; tradition and culture are who I am. I have been privileged to gain certain insight into Aboriginal cultures, the connection to country and the importance of the spirit world. I lived the celebratory roots of multiculturalism in the 1980s. Sadly, it was the celebration of Aboriginal culture that was largely missing and it is the scars of racism that create some common ground. This burdens me with allied prejudices and suspicions of colonial, post-colonial and de-colonialised frameworks. All of which have also affected my own passage and “privilege” as a wog (or ethnic other) in Australia.
Well-made and craft-oriented in nature, Karla’s work is coarse and crusty. She professes, “there is no slickness here, and I’m not a fine art print kind of artist”. Beaded and nailed, these pieces of costumes, scrap farm equipment and birdcages, with touches of paint, all carry the markers of an artist who understands the material she is working with. Karla Dickens’ work cuts through some pretty tough territory: domestic violence, genocide, trauma and cultural dislocation. It is true work, and it is honest. She exhibits an extraordinary versatility in artistic practice that is unrestrained to any single medium. This is her strength. The breadth of her work is rich in complexity, texture, and experience. For viewers, her work will continuously be a precious commodity, and the next round will have a wildly different quality to surprise and confront us.
Yiorgos Zafiriou is a cross disciplinary contemporary visual artist. He is undertaking a PhD at the University of Sydney, Sydney College of the Arts. Currently his performance practice explores the disembodied experience and the relationship this body has to material objects.