Karla Dickens, We Are Young and Free, 2015

Using solar bud lights on a building frame set on the footprint of the original Native Institution building, Karla Dickens’ light installation We are Young and Free, which reimagined the night sky above the institutionalised children. With this simple gesture, the artist poetically evoked the children’s plight. Like all Aboriginal people, these children were indelibly linked to the land, the sky, and the natural world; these children saw beyond their confines. They wanted and needed their cultural links to country. They wanted and needed their families.

With bitter irony, Dickens repurposed a phrase from the Australian national anthem for the title of the work. For Dickens and many others, as the first of the Stolen Generation institutions, the Native Institution is a dire national emblem. The artist has a longstanding practice of reworking symbols of Australian nationalism. In 2013 she was awarded the Parliament of New South Wales Aboriginal Art Prize for January 26, Day of Mourning, consisting of a found Australian flag embellished with hand sewn black crosses. In so doing Dickens created an exquisite symbol of grief: ‘grief for the old, grief for the continuous denial, grief for the disrespect, grief for the lack of acknowledgement and the poor choice of the day to celebrate’.[1]

Dickens’ light work also combined material beauty with difficult truths. Carefully arranged in loose rows, the delicate glowing work symbolised the living spirits of the children. Seen from underneath, We are Young and Free looked like an illuminated Western Desert painting. Significantly, the artist finalised her concept for We are Young and Free while in residence in the Western Desert community of Blackstone. There she encountered the incomparable night skies of the Western Desert and local Elders introduced her to their story of the Seven Sisters, which explains the creation of the constellation of stars also known as Pleiades. This important dreamtime story is about the pursuit of the sisters by two lusting hunters, who spied on and later forced themselves on the sisters. Dickens incorporated one of the hunters into We are Young and Free, representing him by a string of lights wrapped onto a shrub near the building frame. This elegiac tribute to the children of the Blacktown Native Institution also reminds us of the sexual violence inflicted on Aboriginal women in Stolen Generation institutions.

Difficult truths indeed.

Anne Loxley
Senior Curator, C3West
February 2016

[1] Karla Dickens, artist statement, Parliament of New South Wales Aboriginal Art Prize 2013, Parliament House, Sydney, 2013, p.24.

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