Artist Karla Dickens brings the secret history of Aboriginal circus performers to the Big Top

Karla Dickens

Karla Dickens

Create NSW’s 2018/19 Creative Koori – Arts & Cultural Projects fund, Karla Dickens is creating a new multidisciplinary touring exhibition, to connect and celebrate the lives of Aboriginal performers, including Lismore local acrobat Cornelius Sullivan, otherwise known as Con Colleano.

What interested you in the history and inclusion of Aboriginal circus performers?

I heard about an Aboriginal man named Con Colleano from Lismore in northern NSW, the town I have called home for the last 12 years. Con was a world-famous tightrope walker known as the Wizard of the Wire.

When I started to research Con I became completely obsessed with his family’s story, including the fact that he dressed as a Spanish Bullfighter – Con never said he was Aboriginal and at the same time never denied it. This led me to look at the periods of time when Aboriginal performers were openly accepted, and also at the times they were forced to hide behind other identities.

In this project, you will be using mixed media. Can you take us through your process of making this exhibition and why you chose these artforms?

I started the process for this project by collecting objects and images that reminded me of circuses, carnivals and country shows.

The works on large boards came first, with the heavy collage pieces that speak about different people, performances and shows including rough riders, clowns, and girls stripping in the leg tents.

I then started the sculptural works. I built these using a huge collection of objects I found, along with cast aluminium pieces, which repeat themselves throughout the series.

I find that creating with multiple mediums works perfectly to capture the histories and stories. Dancing between different mediums keeps me interested and hopefully the audience too.

What does International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) mean to you?

IDPwD is also my birthday, so I get the opportunity to acknowledge another year lived. The older I get the more I nurture a sense of pride around the fact that against the odds, I live a good life. I am capable, successful, I acknowledge I am not alone, and that Australia has a strong population of people with disability that have no need to live in the shadows.

Can you tell us about your artistic practice and what is it that interests you about social commentary?

I live with a strong sense of being anti-social, and I largely do not feel safe in mainstream Australia on many levels. Creating work exploring social landscapes gives me a golden opportunity to look at core issues that fuel a sense of not belonging. In the process I am gifted a voice, understanding, self-worth, and a deep knowing that I belong no matter what the mainstream believes to be true.

Where can we see your works once it’s complete?

The collage works on boards will be included at the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres, which opens late February. The sculptural work will be shown as a part of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney – NIRIN in March 2020. Then in late 2020, there be a combination of all works exhibited at Lismore Regional Gallery.


Create NSW is passionate about creating real opportunities for people with disabilities to break into and sustain careers in the arts, screen and culture sector. We will be back with more initiatives and opportunities to level the playing field for people with disability in 2020.

Follow us on social media and on our Create enews and Screen enews to make sure you’re in the know.