Artist Karla Dickens ‘stunned and delighted’ by Fellowship

December 5, 2018

This is an edited extract of an interview on ABC Radio National’s The Hub On Art with Karla Dickens, who was recently announced as the inaugural Copyright Agency Visual Artist Fellow for 2018.  The interviewer is The Hub on Art’s host, Eddy Ayres.

What difference is this $80,000 Fellowship going to make in your work?

It will make a profound difference. I think the last grant I received was quite a number of years ago. The amount of time and effort to apply is very high and you put them in and you’re not expecting a result. So, when I got the phone call from the Copyright Agency I actually had to ask the woman [Nicola Evans] to repeat herself, because I was completely stunned and delighted at the same time. You almost feel like you’ve won the lottery.

What is the aim of the work you will make for the Fellowship, ‘A Dickensian Circus’?

I’ve been working for the past few years on some pretty depressing work…about deaths of Inidigenous women, domestic violence, sexual abuse, about stories of my great grandmother – who was a domestic worker and was abused. So I really felt the need to start celebrating, otherwise I would end up in a very dark place myself.

Firstly, it will be looking at boxing troupes that went around the country, with a large number of Indigenous boxers. And I know a number of these boxers are still alive. It probably started in the 1920s, but my daughter’s grandfather Gordon Siren, boxed and a local Elder in the area, Digby Moran was also a boxer and to see the pride and really fond memories of these men when you talk about the boxing days – they really stand up tall and are almost about to go into a swing, they get so passionate about it. So, also there was a local world-famous Aboriginal acrobat just outside of Lismore, called the Wizard of the Wire, and their family name was Sullivan, so Aboriginal/Irish. So him and his sisters, his mother and father, were all a part of a circus. So there are all these incredible stories – and I want to include Indigenous women too.

So basically, Indigenous Australians were not embraced in history in the 1930s and 40s and 50s, but within a circus environment everybody was an outcast until it was time to perform – then they were embraced and celebrated for their skills and their talent.

You currently included in Safe Space (a travelling exhibition) at Logan Art Gallery in Qld, and The Ideal Home at Penrith Regional Gallery and the Museum of Applied Arts and Science. All your work is completely spellbinding, but there’s one work in particular that I wanted you to describe for the radio, and that is Bound.

Bound is a piece of work I made that was hung at Carriageworks for the National last year and it’s six straightjackets and it’s about domestic violence and how that takes different forms. So, on one of the straightjackets there’s a Commonwealth Bank pouch with an old moth coming out of it. The work explores all of the ways that women are bound in abusive relationships, and why they might find it hard to leave.

One of the straightjackets has two dog muzzles and they look like breasts; so often when women have children and keep having children, that makes it difficult to leave a relationship. So, money, beauty, women’s connection to home or a place etc.

I try to make my work as easy as possible for people to connect with and that’s why I love using found objects. Now I write poetry – the poetry is actually a part of the artwork and it helps the viewer to get a better picture. The poetry really helps consolidate the work.

What’s driving you now?

I’m quite driven by the fact that the year is almost finished and I’ll be leaving the country soon. The Fellowship is a wonderful way to end the year.

I think it’s completely and incredibly valuable for artists to have time to sit and stew on ideas and nurture ideas. I haven’t had time like that for quite some time. Thanks to the Copyright Agency for supporting artists to keep making art.

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