“With its ‘classical’ style and pretensions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales vestibule is a perfect post-colonial backdrop for my new offering A Dickensian Circus. Built in 1901–02 from Sydney sandstone, with glass domes above and mosaic tiles below, I aim to reclaim this venerable antechamber using rusty, bent and gnarly sculptures which divulge the hidden stories of marginalised people rarely seen in such a grandiose and majestic setting.”
With its dramatic and immersive collection of objects, Karla Dickens’ installation A Dickensian Circus interweaves histories and narratives of Indigenous people involved in circus shows and tent-boxing troupes from the 1920s to the 1950s. The works here remind us that these histories link to contemporary stories of pride, womanhood, racism, incarceration, dispossession, resistance and defiance. Within the domed space of the Art Gallery of New South Wales vestibule, stories spin-out across a heady array of materials from a kind of historical churn – material stories told with a distinctly circular motion that both transforms and transgresses the space, evoking the charged context of the circus and its complicated historical legacy of entertainment and spectacle, agency and entrapment.
The driving force behind Karla Dicken’s need to communicate is her cross-cultural heritage, within which she often focuses on her Indigenous (Wiradjuri) bloodline, sexuality and life experiences as a soulful connected woman. She uses recycled everyday items to explore notions of persistence amidst inherent violence and misunderstanding. Made with uncommon rawness and daring, her meticulously fabricated works emanate a rare truthfulness and honesty. Edgy and hard to confine, Dickens often cannibalises existing works to create new ones. She presents a wide-ranging and unique interpretation of the world, where past and present collide in a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope of her own making.
Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, and Create NSW, and generous assistance from Justine and Damian Roche
Courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane
With thanks to all First Nation boxers and circus performers past, present and future
22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020)
Karla Dickens, A Dickensian Circus, 2020, mixed-media installation. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund, Create NSW and Justine and Damian Roche. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.
Location: Art Gallery of New South Wales