Obituary - Karen Casey (1956-2021).

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Obituary - Karen Casey (1956-2021).


Newstead, Adrian

Publication date

October 2021





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OBITUARY - Karen Casey (1956-2021)

She was thirty when I met her. The petite, pretty Palawa artist from South East Tasmania had only been exhibiting her paintings and prints for two years. After studying to be a silversmith at art school in Tasmania she’d worked as a jewellery designer before moving to Melbourne and working as a graphic designer for the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

By the time I began exhibiting her works regularly in the late 1980s, she‘d become an accomplished multidisciplinary painter and printmaker, and had soon added ceramics, photography, and installation to her considerable array of interests. I still remember the first print I ever acquired from her. In Black Dog, White Dog Triptych, 1989, two bull terriers are appear in a cartoon-like triptych. In sequence, they meet head on – they fight – the white dog pisses on the wall in triumph, to mark his territory.

Her first ‘proper’ exhibition of paintings featured figurative images inhabiting incongruous urban settings that evoked a sense of inner conflict, and disharmony between society, the spirit world and the environment. In these early works, she dealt with cultural polarity with a characteristic fierceness. They defied analysis, demanding an emotional visceral response.

From the outset, works like Got the Bastard, 1991, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, challenged notions of what Aboriginal women’s art was about. The brutish overbearing redneck with a rifle across his lap and the extinct Tasmanian Tiger haunting the background was an incarnation of the ignorant men who annihilated the Tasmanian Aboriginal population. While Casey’s strong expressionistic treatment concentrated the viewer’s attention on his raw powerful arms and the slash of his wide mouth, his huge eyes would not meet your own. After that painting, big gentle females began to inhabit her works as she rediscovered her ‘feminine’ strength and energy, having released deeply suppressed anger and frustration through earlier works. 

I remember introducing her to James Mollison in the company of Doug Carnegie, who when informed she was an artist asked her pointedly ‘Are you good?’. Taken aback, she answered timidly, ‘I think so’. We always remembered his rejoinder, ‘Can you be better?’. It sounded like a clarion call. Thereafter, championed by Mollison and several other influential curators, she embarked upon a series of exhibitions with an international focus. The following year, she was included in Affirmation of Heritage, an exhibition of contemporary prints and Flash Pictures by Aboriginal Artists both held at the National Gallery of Australia, whilst simultaneously her works hung in the Aboriginal Women’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Following the onset of a physical aversion to paint and printing ink, Karen concentrated her art practice on design and interactive collaborative projects.

By the early 1990s her interest in creating multidisciplinary sensory installations saw her interactive sculpture Transformation included in the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial at the NGV in 1993 where gallery visitors were admitted in small groups into a womb-like enclosure through a plain black door. Inside, they stood in near darkness within a cave made from eroded rock and sand. While the walls glowed and flashed around them, as if illuminated by sheet lightning through a narrow fissure above, they inhaled the aroma of living moss and vegetation. Suspended in the crevice was a large primeval ceramic vessel in the form of an ancient Venus, strung up and dripping water slowly into a pool at its base. The most popular exhibit in the exhibition, its sound and light sequence lasted just 6 minutes but seemed to pass in seconds, so profound was the meditative state the experience induced. As word of mouth spread, visitors to the Gallery had to book days in advance to gain entry.  The following year Casey collaborated on another multi-sensory installation, Journey, with Woody Cywink in the entrance of the American Indian Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Once, more, gallery visitors were enthralled by the experience upon entry to the Museum as the ripples created by dripping water into a sensory pool were projected like a shadow play upon the surrounding walls accompanied by an original soundscape. Later, in 1998 and 1999 she collaborated with Tim Cole, the sound recordist for the renowned, band Not Drowning Waving, to create Dreaming Chamber at the 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery.

By the beginning of the new millennium, Casey had decided, ‘after much soul searching and deliberation’, not to enter any awards specifically designated as being for Aboriginal artists.  Throughout her career to this point she’d had to fight and search for her own identity, through her Aboriginality and her art, and through a process of highlighting ignorance and injustice, she had come to terms with her own internal struggle. The greater part of her being knew a common source , which is why it became increasingly difficult for her to focus on the things that separate and divide us. ‘Clearly’, she wrote, ‘our survival depends on the opposite, and I am now seeing my role and responsibility as an artist changing; in reflecting my commitment to a future that recognises all human beings as equal and able to live in respectful harmony with the planet and each other’. All the while she participated in group and solo exhibitions at leading galleries in Australia including Gallerie Gabrielle Pizzi and Span in Melbourne, Adrian Newstead Gallery in Sydney, and Dick Bett Gallery in Hobart.

In 2003 she was appointed Artist in Residence for the City of Melbourne, working with the Urban Design branch, while also completing a Masters Degree in Public Art, at RMIT. It was a fruitful association during which several significant public artworks were commissioned. They included works located in Reconciliation Place, Canberra, the University of Adelaide, Melbourne Docklands, and the City of Whitellsea, amongst others.

During the last 20 years of her life, she was involved in numerous projects promoting Aboriginal Reconciliation. They included Let’s Shake, an ongoing public participation event in which participants of different cultural backgrounds and ages shook hands with wet porcelain held between their palms for several minutes. The photographs of the participants and the resultant shell shaped porcelain objects that were produced in their hundreds, were used in a series of installation projects that were conceived as a gesture towards peace and solidarity.

A long-standing interest in understanding consciousness and the creative mind led her to initiate a research project with the Brain Science Institute at Swinburne University, Melbourne, in 2004 and to embark on an ambitious collaborative project developing an interactive interface for producing generative art from brainwaves.

She was the instigator and artistic director of the arts/neuroscience initiative Global Mind Project, launched in 2010 with the public performance event Spectacle of the Mind at Federation Square, Melbourne. This ongoing project resulted in various exhibitions, performances, and research outcomes including ISEA 2011 Istanbul, the 2012 National New Media Art Award, Queensland Art Gallery / GOMA and Synaesthesia, MONA, Tasmania 2014. In 2008 she took part in the Australia 2020 Summit at Parliament House, Canberra and in 2014 was invited to present at Open Innovations, the Moscow International Forum for Innovative Development.

Casey envisioned a future where racial division does not exist, a global community rich in the diversity of its many artforms and cultural traditions but devoid of the prejudices that separated and categorised people. A fanciful dream perhaps. But Karen believed that by embracing the ideal and living honestly and truthfully in this vision, she was participating in its creation.

Karen exhibited and was a much-valued collaborator on projects in Africa, the USA, Spain, the UK, Denmark, Japan, Scotland, Germany, and Turkey. Her grants and awards are too numerous to mention as are the dozens of institutional and private collections of renown that have collected her works.

She died on the 15th October 2021 and is survived by her son Daniel and her beloved Grandson Carter.

Adrian Newstead
Bondi, October 2021

Last Updated

03 Nov 2021