“I’ve never been able to conquer my fear of tsunamis and floods,” Karla Dickens tells me, “so I’ve always lived on top of hills.” Dickens has been living in the Northern Rivers region for 18 years. She’s calling me from her house in Lismore—it was spared in the recent catastrophic floods.
It’s devastation in the town. Inconceivable, as Dickens puts it—beyond what those on the outside could imagine. There are people who have absolutely nothing except the clothes on their backs. “I’ve been on washing and cooking duty,” she says. Dickens has a roof over her head, a functioning kitchen, and a washing machine. It’s more than many.
We stick to the positives amongst the catastrophe. Just a week before the floods, as the arts community was coming back together after Covid closures, Dickens was at an opening at Elevator ARI, an essential organisation for the artists in the town. “There’s so much love for Lismore and for each other. Before the floods we were coming back from Covid to support one another. I was at an opening here and it felt so special, the feeling was ‘How incredible is this town?’ Literally a week later that love was put into action.”
Everyone has been hit hard. Elevator ARI has gone under, as has fellow artist Megan Cope’s studio. Lismore Regional Gallery is in crisis. GoFundMe campaigns have popped up everywhere. “Koorie Mail [newspaper written and owned by Indigenous Australians] was so quick to get going on the ground,” says Dickens, “make sure you mention them.”
Dickens is pragmatic as she explains the situation there—it sounds dire. She was on the ground with others when the rains hit, doing a head count, making sure everyone was safe. It was hugs and an overwhelming sense of community once they got through the initial disaster.
“And then you know, a week passed, and now the dysfunction is slipping out the sides. There’s a lot of anger,” she says. “If there’s anything that anyone can do to help, the artists here need support. We need healing for mental health and stuff.” There’s a resilience that comes through in the way that Dickens describes the situation. “I was born in a crisis,” she says, “so I run well and fast in crisis situations.”
Just before the initial Covid outbreak in 2020, Dickens had a big year. She was the star of the show in both the 2020 Adelaide Biennial and the Biennale of Sydney: A Dickensian Circus and A Dickensian Sideshow at Adelaide and Sydney respectively. It was a breakout moment, although Dickens had been making art for three decades.
The seed of the idea for her Dickensian series is an old Lismore local, Con Colleano. An Anglo-Aboriginal boxer, he performed in boxing tents that travelled around Australia. It was a form of freedom to make their own money, while navigating the structures of colonialism. It’s those on the out, the misfits, and those who carry scars of resilience that Dickens is drawn to as an artist. In the precursor to her Dickensian series, Ready, Willing and Able, she worked with two friends, Jeff and Cindy, who were cast as “Mr Willing” and “Ms Ready” respectively. Both Koories, Cindy lives around the corner from Dickens in Lismore, and the artist met Jeff at a Telstra shop when they were both complaining about bills—he’s also a boxer.
For Dickens, Jeff and Cindy epitomise the resilience needed to navigate the colony. They both feature in studio portraiture shots, Jeff as a boxer, Cindy in a sparkling diamante dress with the Australian flag—representative of the “leg tents” that followed the boxing tents. In the vestibule of Art Gallery of New South Wales for the Biennale of Sydney, larger-than-life portraits of Mr Willing and Ms Ready were the first thing audiences saw, and they were a significant element of Dickens’s Adelaide Biennial work. Dickens recalls the photoshoot with Jeff and Cindy at the Lismore showgrounds, that it left them with a feeling of hope. “It was a ‘fuck you’ to the colony—but also, you know, the power of the ancestors that stand behind every wayward blackfella in this country is rock solid.”
Now Dickens is having her inaugural solo show with Sullivan+Strumpf. It will be a selection of works, some from the Dickensian series, others from Return to Sender originally shown at Carriageworks, and a new series made with old book covers.
It’s a strange time to be making art in the middle of a catastrophe, but Dickens is excited to show a selection of newer artworks alongside pieces from the past few years. “My work, it’s like a chapter in a book. It’s all related.” In between working with her local community to rebuild Lismore, she’ll be putting the next part of her story out into the public.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.