Retro Black: Interpellating History
Karla Dickens is an Aboriginal artist who has a way with history. Though there might be no easy lessons and her themes of race and justice in lesser hands might be a series of bitter pills, she has a way of charming you through a common appeal to nostalgia and the affectionate patina of age-worn things and artefacts rich with stories. Frequently there are cross-cultural overlaps, shared values and a duty of care. If there’s a sense of mourning, it’s of all of us mourning together. Recently at ‘Cementa15’ in the New South Wales town of Kandos, Dickens installed a poker machine and ropes of coloured lights at the Kandos Museum as a shrine to the loss of country through the damages of big mining. Framed by the museum’s exhibit of the machines of extraction, you didn’t need to be Aboriginal to get the point of mining as a gamble of riches against the ruination of country. No one culture or race owns the pokies: it’s one of those universal signifiers, a frequent metaphor for bad bets and ill-judged decisions. Dickens is a Wirajuri woman and Kandos is Wirajuri country, but she makes her point through the lingua franca of common objects and good sense.
"Her assemblages renegotiate history, refreshingly, from a black perspective."
Well known for her love of twentieth century remainders—fabric scraps, old books, op-shop finds and items rummaged at the local tip—her assemblages renegotiate history, refreshingly, from a black perspective. Through judicious recreation of context, and some artistic nudging (tweaking, embroidering) her work is staged such that the material signifiers say it all: the artefacts compellingly become their own evidence. Politically and ontologically she has a way with the stuff of matter, such that the truth of things can’t be denied. In her various assemblages, collages and installations, historical objects speak their case.
Take for example the Australian flag, an object of incontestable material reality; its fabric base the ground holding together its various symbolic components. In 2013 Dickens won the Parliament of New South Wales Aboriginal Art Prize with her controversial reworking: 26 January Day of Mourning (2013). The flag was found at her local tip, a discard like the outdated politics it represents. Dickens over-coded the Union Jack with traditional shell beading, and embroidered a constellation of dark crosses into the sky of the Southern Cross. There was no destruction or burning—the usual symbolic acts of protest—no cutting of the body, no abjection (1960 to 1970 art history royalty now includes many of ‘DIA’– Destruction in Art – fame).
Instead Dickens embraced, restored, embellished and added. The crosses symbolised black deaths. Stitching into the flag’s very fabric was a way of materialising that history’s truth, very quietly, even stoically, as a mark of mourning. Without anger and with respect, she found a way of saying black lives matter; that black history is formative of the ‘post-invasion’ Australian story. This ground of mourning lies at the core of the modern Australian nation state, and in 2015 could not be more relevant to the current debates on constitutional recognition of the First Australians or their original custodianship of the land.