Karla Dickens is a collector of many things. Each piece she collects, whether it’s from the op-shop, the side of the road or the local tip has meaning. She gives her found objects an extended life by consciously repositioning and locating them in new visual stories.
Karla understands and sees the enormous potential and possibilities of the found object, as she is extremely aware of the relationship that exists between the Anthropocene and the impact that colonisation has had on Country, culture and the lives of all Indigenous people.i She continues to unswervingly explore the direct impact and our ongoing relationship to the environment by opting to make art that repurposes and reuses a multitude of found objects and materials. In Karla’s work this decision becomes a personal stance, which demonstrates how environmentally and culturally important it is for contemporary Indigenous artists – including myself – to care for Country!
Numerous collected and collated historical postcards, materials (tarpaulin) and objects (a prison door, ropes, fences etc) make up Karla’s new large-scale, mixed-media installation Return to Sender. The material and objects deliberately speaking to several specifically ‘named’ mailboxes: Mr Wally White, Karen, Racist Rick, Bob Bigot, KKK, Aussie Sheila.
Return to Sender explores how Karla views and reflects on the impact of colonisation on the Indigenous (blak) body and Country.ii This is blatantly obvious when you read and decipher the handwritten words on the back of each of the postcards. These historical and seemingly innocent postcards offer a window into our contested colonial past. They draw attention to the endless government policies that managed Indigenous people, including the segregation that existed then and still resonates today in contemporary Australian politics and society: Are we a racist country? Whose lives matter?
In Australia, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has bought into focus our history of invasion and genocide (settlement).iii Reminding us, as Pascale Hunt wrote in The Diplomat, that:
‘The Indigenous peoples of Australia have suffered direct, structural, and cultural violence since colonization began over 200 years ago. While the exact numbers are contested, it has been estimated that there were between 300,000 and 1 million Indigenous peoples living on the Australian continent at that time, dispersed across over 200 nations – many of those lives were lost in direct combat and massacres at the time of British settlement.’iv
The powerful #BlackLivesMatter movement has bought a new awareness, visibility, strength, and resilience to people of colour throughout the world, and this is the contemporary context in which Return to Sender now resonates. In Return to Sender the original postcards are rescaled in a layered collage. Karla displays the writing on the back of the postcards, some of which seem to demonstrate a naivety or deliberately ignore the obvious relationship between the photograph (an Aboriginal man or woman) and the sender. In some postcards the writing locates the sender in specific and identifiable racial nuances and insinuations, reminding us that language is a colonial tool of abuse, which has been employed to belittle, ridicule and dismiss the Indigenous (blak)body.
Karla seems to be disturbed – as am I – by the complete arrogance and sometimes utter ignorance of the postcard sender’s who appear not to ‘see’ the blak body: ‘female’ or ‘male’. They also refuse to take responsibility for the acts of violence that the ‘English’ language, repetitively and continually perpetrates on the Indigenous (blak)body. Many Indigenous artists – myself included – find themselves in a similar situation to Karla, as we work through the battlefield that is the English language. This language has been used not only to dismiss, silence and mock our Indigenous (blak)bodies but also to violate our bodies. Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us that:
‘Indigenous people want to tell our own stories, write our own versions, in our own ways, for our own purposes. It is not simply about giving an oral account or a genealogical naming of the land and the events which rage over it, but a very powerful need to give testimony to and restore a spirit, to bring back into existence a world fragmented and dying. The sense of history conveyed by these approaches is not the same thing as the discipline of history, and so our accounts collide, crash into each other.’v
Indigenous artists cannot return to the past to fix it. But we can reframe and restory it. We can make big, bold, powerful, political and poetic art that supports us to both heal and move forward. This is often a fraught and tumultuous creative journey that seems to demand that contemporary urban-based Indigenous artists require, ‘alternative ways of knowing, doing and being,’ to continually reinterpret and reframe the colonial language in order for us to reimagine and re-empower our Indigenous futures.vi
Karla does exactly this by creating her work from a place of lived experience, which she fuses with a personal and political history. This process and method of making art ultimately becomes a creative act of defiance that Indigenises the story. In Return to Sender, the rescaled postcards force the viewer to look at a mass of Indigenous identities. We see Indigenous eyes that are covered by blindfolds. The ‘Aussie’ flag becomes a glitzy mini dress worn defiantly by a young Indigenous woman gesturing: fuck you. While the repetitive use of the ‘return to sender’ stamp highlights the postcards’ written messages and emphasises the power of the Indigenous (blak)body. A body that has been deliberately omitted; left out of our ‘true’ history.
Ultimately, Karla’s clever and confronting reworking of these seemingly innocent and visually identifiable postcards is an act of decolonisation. She deliberately shifts the framing of Return to Sender from the white anthropological male gaze by positioning her art within the powerful and resilient story of the survival of the Indigenous (blak)body. In the profound words of bell hooks, ‘the function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.’vii With Return to Sender Karla gives us all an opportunity to see and understand the complexities of the world through a powerful and evocative Indigenous lens.
Words by r e aviii
r e a is a Gamilaraay/Wailwan/Biripi artist, activist and academic.
Visit Karla Dickens’ Return to Sender at Carriageworks from 6-30 Jan, Wed-Sun from 10am – 5pm.