ABC / Activists / Artists

100 years later, these racist postcards are being ‘returned to sender’ by a Wiradjuri artist

When the tip shops closed during COVID-19, Karla Dickens turned to eBay.

For decades, the artist of Wiradjuri heritage has incorporated discarded or recycled objects into her mixed-media installations and sculptural collages.

She re-contextualises the objects by adding layers of drawing, painting or embroidery as a form of commentary and reframes the narrative for contemporary audiences.

During lockdown, Dickens found she could feed her obsession with vintage postcards in that giant tip shop of the internet.

What started out as a modest collection in a tin (with a koala on the lid) now numbers in the hundreds.

These postcards form the heart of her new exhibition, Return to Sender, at Carriageworks in Sydney until January 30.

The exhibition was originally part of the 2022 Sydney Festival program, but Dickens withdrew her work in response to a call to boycott the festival over a sponsorship arrangement with the Israeli embassy.

In a statement she said her action was “in protest at the negligence and complete disregard of cultural safety and duty of care on the part of the Festival with regard to participating artists, including myself”.

‘It’s not just my responsibility to sit with this history’

Dickens came across the first postcard in her collection many years ago, sandwiched between the pages of a book she’d picked up at an op-shop.

That discovery inspired her to go looking for more examples of vintage Australian postcards depicting First Nations men, women and families.

The examples she unearthed ranged from dehumanising caricatures to beautiful portraits, but Dickens found the most revealing aspect was often the notes written on the back.

An image of an Aboriginal woman in an Australian flag dress superimposed on top of vintage postcards of Aboriginal people
One postcard caption compared an Aboriginal woman to a wildflower. “They were not even seen as people,” says Dickens.(Supplied: Carriageworks/Zan Wimberley)

“Some of the messages have got nothing to do with the postcard at all … but other ones are really derogatory comments about the women – ‘Check out this style!’ [under the image of a half-naked woman] and ‘How would you like to show up here?'” Dickens told ABC RN’s The Art Show.

One image, of a beautiful Aboriginal woman, shows her bare-chested. The caption on the front reads: Winnie, the belle of the camp.

Dickens pored over each postcard, trying to see the world through the eyes of someone who would choose to send something like this, and from the perspective of the person who received it.

“The fronts and backs [of the postcards] are kind of equally telling,” she says.

On a wall beside a staircase hangs an enlarged cartoon image taken from a vintage postcard of an Aboriginal child
“When I find these things I love looking at the handwriting and looking at the messages,” Dickens told ABC RN’s The Art Show.(Supplied: Carriageworks/Zan Wimberley)

Scanned and enlarged, the postcards are now part of large-scale wall collages in her Carriageworks exhibition.

Dickens says working with the postcards was difficult but she knew, ultimately, that she wanted to transmute them into art.

“It’s not just my responsibility to sit with this history. It’s a shared history,” she says.

“Healing isn’t always a cheery occupation. I’ve worked on change for many years. It’s not easy; you have to look at lots of hard things if you want to change.”

Return to the KKK and Aussie Sheila

“I had never used images of people before, and I sat with these objects for a long time. It’s probably the longest brewing and hardest work that I’ve created because of the respect that needs to be shown to these objects,” says Dickens.

She was also very aware of the families of the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people represented in the photographs.

Many of the images she selected were over a century old, which meant the people in them had passed away many years ago.

“If somebody had passed away in the last 10 or 20 years, I would not want to use those photos, just out of respect to their living families,” she explains.

Many of the images had also been staged: “The person posed for a photographer and so would have given their permission.”

She chose to cover the eyes of each person depicted with a black bar.

“In the 60s and 70s they would cover the victim’s eyes in the newspaper — and if that was your ancestor, you would know regardless of whether the eyes were covered, but it was about giving some respect to these people.”

She also consulted with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to make sure none of the content in the images related to sacred or secret material.

In a final touch, Dickens stamped each postcard with a red circle bearing the words “return to sender”.

Within the exhibition, she installed a row of small personal letterboxes bearing the names of imagined senders: Mr Wally White, Karen, Racist Rick, Bob Bigot, KKK and Aussie Sheila.

Two metal letterboxes, one dark, one red, sit on top of an iron gate, one reading "Bob Bigot", the other "Racist Rick"
“The work is about returning it to those people who send it on,” explains Dickens.(Supplied: Carriageworks/Zan Wimberley)

Over each of the exhibition’s two collages of enlarged postcard images, she superimposed a photograph of a contemporary First Nations person: one of model Cindy Paden, wearing a sequined Australian flag mini dress and flipping the bird at the audience; the other of a man called Jeff, covered in tattoos and with his fists raised.

“There is vulnerability in those [postcard] images, and Cindy just steps it up and goes, ‘This is our past, and we’re still here, we’re still strong’,” says Dickens.

“It’s that strength, that resilience, and not cockiness but pride — and a little bit of f*** you — in both those people who are imposed over these postcards.”

‘I could not have filled the flag with enough crosses for the loss’

Since the lockdowns have lifted, Dickens is back to trawling the tip sites around her home in Lismore, in north-eastern New South Wales.

There are a good number, she reports, some of which are more than 50 years old.

Like an archaeologist, she is looking for clues about the society she lives in.

It was at one of these tip sites that Dickens found a large, “crusty, old” Australian flag that she would use to create one of her most celebrated – and controversial – works to date: 2013’s January 26, Day of Mourning.

An old Australian flag onto which crosses, dots, stars and shell buttons are embroidered
When she won the Aboriginal Art Prize, Dickens said: “I went about hand-sewing my grief, with one cross after another. Unfortunately, it’s only a small gesture to reflect the true loss.”(Supplied: Sullivan + Strumpf)

The name, which references the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning – the Indigenous response to Australia’s sesquicentenary ‘celebrations’ on January 26, 1938 – is “in homage to our forefathers”, Dickens explains.

“We know a lot about all these American civil rights activists but not many people in Australia know about our own activists.

They got shut down, they got harassed by the police, they got children taken, and all sorts of other horrible things, so yeah, bravo to those strong people. It makes me well up.”

In making the work, Dickens tapped into her own complex feelings around ‘Australia Day’ and what the flag represents, carefully embroidering it with crosses, dots, stars, and shell buttons.

“The crosses really represent death to me, and I could not have filled the flag with enough crosses for the loss,” she says.

The choice of embroidery as a medium was pointed.

“The [Indigenous] women that were placed in homes and trained as domestics would do the sewing and the embroidery, but I haven’t been able to find any examples of their work in museums,” says Dickens.

She says the process of making the work was “really healing”.

“So much of my work has been about the abuse of Aboriginal women in Australia and how that has continued. So to work on those things and to go into my studio, that kind of affirms the history, it deals with the issue and the trauma of it. Once the work goes out, it’s cathartic.”

‘There was fear’

A 50-something Aboriginal woman with a mullet sits with her arms resting on a circular sculpture, handpainted with words
Dickens “gives her found objects an extended life by consciously repositioning and locating them in new visual stories”.(Supplied: Carriageworks/Zan Wimberley)

In October 2013, January 26, Day of Mourning was awarded the $40,000 Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize.

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Read the complete piece here. This story was first published by the ABC on Jan 26, 2022.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are advised that the exhibition contains images of deceased persons, and the work includes images and themes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples may find sensitive and distressing.