At Home: Karla Dickens and the black Madonnas


Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters

When Djon Mundine opened his essay on artist Karla Dickens with Leonard Cohen’s words, he was right on the money. The works of Karla Dickens resonate with both the blackness of Cohen while indeed being constructed of rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters.

At first glance Dickens’ work is an eclectic mix of line, pattern and decoration. Look again and you will see the reoccurring themes that underpin her prodigious production are referential to Aboriginal Dreaming, Christianity, Hinduism and elements of pagan gods and mythology. She paints a range of subject matter including the Black Madonnas.

Dickens renders her Madonnas black. Jet black and faceless. A powerful political statement in itself. Far from passive—and evoking something of the babushka nesting doll and the cycle of life-giving-life—her black Madonnas loom large in full-bodied colour and complexity.


Dickens renders her Madonnas black. Jet black and faceless.

Meticulously constructed from scraps of found fabrics, wallpaper, beads and collected items like crocheted doilies, Dickens builds her works through paint and collage with each element contributing something from its life’s journey. In this way personal memory and cultural commemoration are packed tightly into each and every piece.

Karla Dickens works from personal experience; gender politics and sexual preference, motherhood, a deep spiritualism and the difficulty of being an outsider in a culture reinventing itself to survive. She produces assertive and complex works—uplifting and contemporary in both narration and presentation.

Karla Dickens is a Wiradjuri woman and grew up in Sydney in the 60s and 70s when Aboriginality was something to hide. Her works are in collections at Lismore Regional Art Gallery, Grafton Regional Art Gallery, and Campbelltown City Art Centre. She is also represented in the U.T.S Sydney Art Collection, the National Museum of Australia and several of her early works are in the Syron collection. 


She currently lives in Lismore with her daughter Ginger. She is represented by Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney.

Read more about Karla on her website.

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