Fellowship Q&A with Karla Dickens

Cultural Fund

A Wiradjuri woman living in regional New South Wales, Karla Dickens is known for her provocative reflections on Australian culture, past and present. Awarded the inaugural Copyright Agency Fellowship for a Visual Artist in 2018, she went on to create two large-scale multimedia installations: ‘A Dickensian Circus’ as part of the Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN at AGNSW, and ‘A Dickensian Country Show’ included in the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres at AGSA.

In this Q&A, Karla discusses the focus of her recent works and how she was able to bring them to life with the help of her Fellowship.

Karla Dickens, A Dickensian Circus, 2020 (installation in the Vestibule of AGNSW, 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN, 14 March–8 June 2020). Photo by Andrew Baker, courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.

How has your Fellowship impacted your artistic practice and exhibition opportunities?

Being awarded the Fellowship definitely had an impact on my ability to create my art and took the pressures off my financial worries. Being an artist, you are constantly faced with financial pressure without the security of a regular income. The Fellowship allowed me to purely focus on my art and gave me the opportunity to honour commitments for upcoming exhibitions with a greater level of professionalism and freedom, helping to produce two high quality bodies of work.

Would it have been possible to create your work without the Fellowship?

I have always created art on the smell of an oily rag, so yes, I believe I would have created work regardless – would it have been the same work? Not at all. I do know that the Fellowship pushed me in a direction where I was able to create freely, with the opportunity to use and explore materials that I would not have been able to use otherwise.

I had been creating very difficult work for a number of years around the deaths of Indigenous women, domestic violence and sexual abuse – ‘A Dickensian Circus’ was a new avenue and a fresh adventure. It celebrates the unheralded Indigenous performers of times gone by whose extraordinary talents and skills entertained Australians from the country’s beginnings until the present day. During the process, I discovered numerous stories regarding people having to hide their identity due to the NSW Aboriginal Protection Act, as the permission required to leave missions or reserves was rarely granted. This saw performers driven to promote themselves as “Polynesian”, “Hawaiian” or something “other” than what they really were.

‘A Dickensian Circus’ is playful and lighter in spirit than other works in past years.

Karla Dickens, A Dickensian Circus, 2020 (installation in the Vestibule of AGNSW, 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN, 14 March–8 June 2020). Photo by Andrew Baker, courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.

Did the Fellowship give you the time and space to create?

An artist’s life is built on sweat and sacrifice, walking on a slippery financial highwire without any safety nets. To have a period of time where you are able to create your work on solid ground is a blessing and offers security that can only enhance an artist’s practice and sense of self-worth.

As a woman, I have also needed to do a lot of healing. Time in my studio and the act of making art is my safe place and meditation. I spend a lot of time in deep listening before creating work. The making of art is a balancing act of darkness and light.

The Fellowship gave me time in my studio and enabled me to create my work to the highest of standards and without compromise.

What was your project?

My projects ‘A Dickensian Circus’ and ‘A Dickensian Country Show’ engage and connect with a range of ideas and communities, from boxers to circus performers, rodeo riders and stripers – I have interwoven many current issues and stereotypes into their stories. The works engage with racism, politics, consumerism and the environment. I have used countless found objects to create heavy collage wall works, large free-standing sculptures, a new photo series and smaller detailed assemblages aiming to capture an essence of the lives, tales, memories and polarities of sideshows, boxing tents, country shows and circuses. The works are as layered and dark as the life and times of those that toured on stages and behind the scenes. They are very working class, with glitter and shadows that will hopefully call back memories for audiences.

What was the focus of your work?

The focus of my work was to create a carnival-esque sideshow installation. It is a dark betrayal of Aboriginal ‘attractions’ on the country circus circuit, pitting funfair humour in tandem with racism. It exposes the perceived monsters of society, past and present.

Karla Dickens, A Dickensian Circus, 2020 (installation in the Vestibule of AGNSW, 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN, 14 March–8 June 2020). Photo by Andrew Baker, courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.

Where are you exhibiting your art?

My artwork is currently on display at the Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN (AGNSW) and the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres (AGSA). The works will tour to a number of regional galleries, with the addition of a caravan providing a space to invite elders and community members to share stories of tent boxers and performers known to them.

Have you received ongoing interest from your work due to media awareness?

The Fellowship definitely helped support this and gave me the ability to reach a wider audience. It also gave me the opportunity to honour commitments that take up a lot of money. It took the pressure off me substantially to be able to create.

What advice would you say to people who are considering applying for the Fellowship?

Definitely go for it! It gave me the opportunity to pursue my artwork and gave me faith in what I am capable of doing. Artists can relate to one another with the pressures they feel to produce their work. In our industry, there is a lot of rejection and quite frequently we have the thoughts of ‘giving up and questioning our ability. The Fellowship gave me an added confidence; definitely an invaluable opportunity.

Anything else you would like to add?

I would just like to thank and acknowledge the opportunity given to me by the Copyright Agency. The Fellowship assisted me in sharing powerful messages of the Aboriginal community as well as other marginalised people. Its role is a crucial one in that it supports artists to keep making art, and sharing stories via visional language.

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