Karla Dickens, Never Forgotten, 2015
Throughout her practice, artist Karla Dickens has exposed unpalatable truths about Australia’s past and ongoing relationship with its traditional owners. Her work has celebrated historical figures like Bungaree, interpreted histories of institutionalisation and dispossession, and articulated the continuing impact of illegal invasion on Indigenous peoples’ experience of loss, spirituality and sexuality.
Never Forgotten was a text piece woven onto the chain link fence surrounding the archaeological remains of the Blacktown Native Institution. The words ‘Loving Memory’ were created with strips of cloth and canvas, tied to the fence by the artist and community members both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. The cloth refers directly to the bedsheets of the children kept in the schoolhouse during its operation from 1823 – 1829. At the final event on Saturday 7 November, the words were set ablaze and allowed to burn until ash.
Never Forgotten is a memorial to the experiences of the pupils at the Blacktown Native Institution, many of whom were taken unwillingly or through coercion into the care of the state. The Institution is one of the earliest sites of what we now know as the stolen generations – the widespread and systematic removal of Aboriginal children from their families in an attempt to sever their connection to culture and kinship as a means of assimilation into a European way of life. At the time of the Institution, this formed part of a suite of government policies designed to control the Indigenous peoples, including punitive raids, public executions, limits on the size of gatherings, and formal identification.
Conditions at the Institution were described as being severe, run in a fashion similar to an orphan school. Of course many of the students were not orphans, and in fact their families often camped nearby on the land granted to Colebee and Nurragingy, known as Black’s Town. Contact with their families was intentionally limited and the rules and regulations of the Institution expressly forbade children the ‘permission to leave, or to be taken away by any Person whatever (whether Parents or other Relatives)’. During the Blacktown Native Institution Project, stories were told by Darug people of parents hiding in the nearby bush, making bird calls to their children inside; and of children escaping through the reeds under the cover of darkness to their waiting families. Indeed, records show a number of children escaped from the Institution during its existence, ultimately leading to its closure due to its inability to retain students.
Dickens’ work speaks to this history broadly, and specifically to the lived experiences of the children who were kept at the school: to the depersonalising experience of institutionalisation; to the rupture in kinship and culture; and to the nurture that they were denied. The reference to bedsheets evokes the intimate experience of sleep, which should be a time of rest and regeneration, but for these children would have been an alien and alienating experience, tucked into bed under unfamiliar fabrics and held away from their families.
Never Forgotten expands on themes that Dickens has explored in her practice previously, such as grief, memory, and intimacy. In 2008, Lismore Regional Gallery held a solo exhibition of Dickens’ work titled Loving Memory. The exhibition included mixed media works on canvas and soft sculptures, reflecting on personal and cultural experiences of loss, and the enduring relationship we have with those who have passed away. Never Forgotten builds on her previous work responding to the Blacktown Native Institution as part of Blacktown Arts Centre’s 2013 exhibition, Sites of Experimentation. Dickens installed a series of washing lines on the site with vintage girls’ undergarments pegged to them. Through its use of these clothes, Whitewash (2013) articulated the intimate impacts of institutionalisation of Aboriginal girls – a concern echoed in the use of cloth in Never Forgotten.
Setting Never Forgotten alight was a complex gesture, yet capacious enough to contain a number of contradictory meanings. Fire has significance to Aboriginal people both as a traditional tool for land management and, more recently and despicably, as the lynching fires of colonists. Nonetheless, watching the work combust, an inferno to mark the culmination of the yearlong project on the site, was undoubtedly spectacular. It commenced in a violent burst of energy and was allowed to dwindle, time seeming to slow down as the words faded into ash. It was an almost religious or ecstatic experience – a cathartic release of grief and suffering.
The work has an ongoing presence on the site as a dark outline of text burned into the fence – a subtle yet poignant memorial to the children of the Blacktown Native Institution. Like so much of Dickens’ work, Never Forgotten serves as an affirmation of connections to the past, physically, culturally and spiritually.
C3West Assistant Curator