“With its ‘classical’ style and pretensions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales vestibule is a perfect post-colonial backdrop for my new offering A Dickensian Circus. Built in 1901–02 from Sydney sandstone, with glass domes above and mosaic tiles below, I aim to reclaim this venerable antechamber using rusty, bent and gnarly sculptures which divulge the hidden stories of marginalised people rarely seen in such a grandiose and majestic setting.”
With its dramatic and immersive collection of objects, Karla Dickens’ installation interweaves histories and narratives of Indigenous people involved in circus shows and tent-boxing troupes from the 1920s to the 1950s. The works here remind us that these histories link to contemporary stories of pride, womanhood, racism, incarceration, dispossession, resistance and defiance. Within the domed space of the vestibule, stories spin-out across a heady array of materials from a kind of historical churn – material stories told with a distinctly circular motion that both transforms and transgresses the space, evoking the charged context of the circus and its complicated historical legacy of entertainment and spectacle, agency and entrapment.