Karla Dickens

1967 | Eora Country, Sydney, Australia
Karla Dickens — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Portrait of Karla Dickens, Photo Mick Richards

Australian Wiradjuri installation artist.

Karla Dickens is a multidisciplinary artist of Wiradjuri, Irish and German descent. Since graduating from the National Art School in Sydney in 2000 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts – and having since made Bundjalung country in northern New South Wales her home – she has dedicated herself to her art, a decision she says she owes in large part to her daughter. Unlike many artist mothers of her generation, K. Dickens is a loud and proud single mother, a stance from which she draws much strength. Her artwork unfurls the cross-cultural experiences that have shaped her identity. A self-described visual storyteller, she believes artists’ propensity to respond to the world around them brings them into contact with the political and social issues of the day and allows them to break the silence, to carve out spaces for truth telling and confront issues others won’t, like systemic sexual violence against Indigenous women.

For K. Dickens, making art feels like the safest place to discuss discrimination and abuse. She fights for radical change by weaving historically symbolic yet also personal accounts of transgenerational trauma, sounding a call to arms to the younger generation to learn how to protect themselves from the toxicity of the lingering effects of colonialism and entrenched racism. Although she started out as a painter, an interest in combining second-hand and found materials such as fabrics, rusted hardware, beads and hair is a common thread in her work. Sleeping Beauty (2016) which responds to the heinous abuse experienced by generations of women, including her great-grandmother, depicts a black woman lying face down, violently and horizontally stretched across a clashing field of floral fabrics forming bold geometric shapes (including a crucifix). Warrior Women, a series of 20 works (2018) are wall mounted sculptural reliefs built upon a silver coated pair of boy-leg underpants, encrusted with beads and laden with rusted horseshoes, catskins, tourist spoons and found bones. In recent years her dark subject matter has given way to her evolving Dickensian Sideshow, Dickensian Circus and Dickensian Country Show (2020). Encompassing found object assemblage, these works mark a return to community-engaged performance, taking as their starting point world-famous Aboriginal tightrope walker Con Colleano, who became known as one of the highest paid circus performers of his time. For K. Dickens, these are joyful works, highlighting how circus became a home for social outcasts and a place where Aboriginal people found uncharacteristic acceptance and, in some cases, great acclaim.

The artist accompanies much of her visual art with poetry, produced alongside the visual works, they provide her audience with additional visceral insights, offering more clues to the intergenerational cross-cultural stories she feels compelled tell.
K. Dickens’s work has been included in many significant institutional survey exhibitions, for example: The National: New Australian Art 2017 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (2017); 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, Art Gallery of New South Wales (2020); 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Monster Theatres, Art Gallery of South Australia.

Kylie Banyard

A notice produced as part of the TEAM international academic network: Teaching, E-learning, Agency and Mentoring

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