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Artbank New Acquisition: Karla Dickens

Karla Dickens, Pound-for-Pound #8, 2019 Aluminium, vintage mattock handle, waxed linen thread, cotton string, steel pulleys, emu feathers, steel, acrylic paint

Karla Dickens

Pound-for-Pound #8  2019

Artbank is very excited to announce a new acquisition by Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens. ‘Pound-for-Pound #8’ is part of a significant series included in the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, curated by artist Brook Andrew. The work is informed by Dickens’ research into Indigenous Australians who performed in circuses across the country. The symbolism makes powerful references to the black power movement and makes a bold statement of cultural assertion.

Senior Curator Dr Oliver Watts discusses this important new addition to the Artbank Collection. 

Karla Dickens, a Wiradjuri artist, although being a stalwart of Australian art for decades, is perhaps finally finding her place as one of the most important contemporary Australian artists working today. This was a remarkable year for her, having been curated into both the Sydney Biennale by Brook Andrew and the Adelaide Biennale by Leigh Robb.

Having worked for over a year on both these significant bodies of work, Artbank took the opportunity to purchase one of her works in advance of the outings in the Biennales in order to support the artist in at least a small way in the lead up to these important career milestones. It was a great privilege to see a sneak preview of her work and to choose from these substantial bodies of work.

Artbank was drawn particularly to a series of sculptural work called Pound for Pound. The work is broadly figurative and approximates a standing figure. Made up of a variety of materials the main form of the work is a boxing glove cast in aluminium that stands in for a head placed on a steel armature.

Dickens uses found material a lot in her work to imbue her objects with a real sense of place and history. The artefacts, whether found wallpapers or Mattock handles, bear their previous life as a reified form of social history. Although the work must be read as a whole, the parts of the work can also be mined for historical and metaphorical value. In the Black Dog Series (2013), another work from the Artbank collection, you can see this process directed towards two-dimensional collage where Dickens uses old wallpapers, magazine imagery and other found surfaces.

In Pound for Pound the montage approach is brought to sculpture, with an extremely mysterious and resonant effect. Feathers, old string, steel cable, a vintage mattock and of course the cast aluminium glove all come together for the viewer to read. The work from a formal point of view is both powerful and soft, old and new, heroic but declassed, about the labouring man but also like a sacred relic. 

The work is currently showing as part of a bigger installation, A Dickensian Circus in the ante rooms of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for Nirin. The space is turned into a form of carnival based on the stories of Indigenous Australians who were part of circus shows and tent-boxing troupes, especially between 1920 and 1960. It is a subject that Rhoda Roberts explored in her play Natives Go Wild. David Milroy’s play King Hit (1997) also brought the stories of Indigenous boxers to the stage.

There is no doubt that for many Indigenous boxers it was a road to money and fame and to a level of autonomy away from the eyes of the Protection Board. But of course there were still hardships surrounding the pressures of entertainment and exploitation and the level of travelling lead to a distancing from family and homelands. The athleticism of Indigenous people was celebrated though, Lionel Rose and Tony Mundine and many others begun their sporting lives as part of troupes.

Tony Mundine is quoted as saying, "Back in the days we were poor and had no money for stuff so when these shows come to Grafton it was always a big deal…I was climbing the ladder so quickly I was knocking everyone out. I had 25 knockouts in a row. It was big cash my friend, big cash.”

The title of this piece comes from the boxing troupe siren call, “A round or two for a pound or two.” Even the title therefore equivocates: A pound of flesh, a pounding for a pound. The Nirin catalogue notes describe the work in this way:

“…evoking the charged context of the circus and its complicated historical legacy of entertainment and spectacle, agency and entrapment….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.”

In the present climate the work not only looks back but forward as a strong piece of political power and agency. The fist is reminiscent of the clinched fists of the Black Power movement; the strength of the works, especially massed as a group in the foyer of the gallery, are like a phalanx of fighters confronting the gallery goer. We are proud that at least part of this powerful installation will have a continuing force within the Artbank Collection and tell its story of Indigenous rights and cultural identity in Australia and abroad for years to come.

Karla Dickens is a Wiradjuiri artis, born in Sydney 1967 and currently living and working in Lismore, NSW.

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 Roch.

Pound for Pound #8 will be available through Artbank leasing program at the close of the exhibition. For more information contact Artbank.

Artwork details: Karla Dickens, Pound-for-Pound #8, 2019 Aluminium, vintage mattock handle, waxed linen thread, cotton string, steel pulleys, emu feathers, steel, acrylic paint

Karla Dickens Pound-for-Pound #8 2019