The healing art of transformation

Artist Karla Dickens

A Wiradjuri woman born in southern Sydney, Karla Dickens is now based on the North Coast and has been a practicing artist for more than 20 years. She trained at the National Art School in Sydney and has been driven to create art since she was a child. Prolific and hard working, Dickens is increasingly in demand for group and solo exhibitions. And her work features in the collections of many regional and national galleries.

Parliament of NSW, Aboriginal Art Prize, 2013

Dickens recycles found and discarded materials fossicked from rubbish tips to create her collage-based works and her three-dimensional sculptures. Old cages, pieces of fabric, leather, plastic, feathers, wire masks, dog muzzles, scrap metal and bone are already steeped in history and emotions associated with their former use and existence. Dickens gives them new life, transforming colonial waste and surplus into Aboriginal creations of unsettling beauty that reflect on and challenge our accepted understandings of Australia’s history, both past and present.

Dickens acknowledges the healing capacity of art.

“My art is such a big part of my life and I’ve seen so many people actually heal when they have some way to express themselves.”

Initially the work she makes is for her own healing but she admits that she’s heard it has this effect upon others in the community.

“I don’t try to speak about other people’s pain.”

Working across a wide array of media, her art is an expression of deep personal experience, in sexuality, motherhood, the strength and resilience of black women, a complex spirituality, and her need to ask questions and speak about contemporary Aboriginality in Australia, with a desire for change.

Things are never as they first appear in Dickens’ creations when the mix of objects, patterns and decoration captivate. On further contemplation one becomes aware of her sharp wit and a subtle and persistent statement that things cannot remain the same. Healing demands that things change. Healing and art both require processes of transformation.

The majority of Australia celebrates 26 January… I cringe… and respectfully hold my grief

Karla Dickens’ “January 26, Day of Mourning” was the winner of the 2013 Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize. Embroidering a tattered old Australian flag with Aboriginal symbols and embellishing the Union Jack with lace rosettes that resemble a wreath, Dickens makes a powerful statement about grief.

“The majority of Australia celebrates 26 January… I cringe … and respectfully hold my grief – the grief for the old, grief for the continuous denial, grief for the disrespect, grief for the lack of acknowledgement and the poor choice of the day to celebrate. After finding the flag at the tip, I went about hand sewing my grief, with one cross after another. Unfortunately, it’s only a small gesture to reflect the true loss.”

The application of embroidery and lace to an overtly nationalistic and masculine symbol has an effect that is softening, and feminine. When the work was accused of being provocative, Matt Poll, one of the prize’s judges said, ‘’I think provocative is too strong a word. I think it’s about embroidery and the feminist practice of making things your own.’’

Once again, in seeking her own healing through art, Karla Dickens has created a beautiful and subversive work that urges all of us to think about how we might heal ourselves, and this nation.

Karla Dickens is represented by Andrew Barker Art Gallery Brisbane, and her work can be viewed online at:

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