Yhonnie Scarce

As the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art hosts Yhonnie Scarce's solo show Missile Park, we're reflecting on the artist's conversation with Susie Anderson, published in Artist Profile 53. The two women discussed what a decolonial archive might look like, Australia's history of nuclear testing, and the ambivalent beauty of glass in Scarce's hands.

Suspended in plume-like formations, hundreds of icicle-shaped glass forms are looming. Was that a sound? They’re alive in the otherwise silent space, swaying slightly in your wake. Carrying life that was literally breathed into them by their makers. Carrying the life of those who were affected by nuclear plumes at Maralinga. A precarious movement, they are glass, fragile perhaps, but also strong.

I vividly remember this feeling, evoked by Yhonnie Scarce’s Death Zephyr, which I saw as part of ‘The National’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2017. In the exhibition catalogue, Daniel Browning wrote, ‘The objects Scarce creates are literal in so much as they mimic the organic form of bush foods once harvested by Aboriginal people across the inland. There are elongated long yams, bush bananas and bush plums. But in Scarce’s work they are totems, rarely standing for themselves. A signature, the strangely anthropomorphic long yam often appears in Scarce’s work as a monument to the dead.’

When we spoke in July 2020, Scarce said that for her, art has always been a way to draw people in, to educate them on Aboriginal experiences and histories. While they often take the form of striking, beautiful installations or ‘monuments’, they can evoke sadness, with installations that are often memorials to lost family members or First Nations people more broadly. The subject matter is imbued with the same seriousness as the global crisis we currently find ourselves in. With oppression against our people so widespread across the country, the gravity of the word ‘pandemic’ is not too far removed from Scarce’s work.

‘I like creating work that speaks about historical content and history people refuse to acknowledge or talk about, in terms of First Nations people. I like the fact that art can be seen as an archive. Creating something that’s going to be seen for many years later’, says Scarce.

The gleam of the yams suspended from the ceiling seduces the viewer, with layers of meaning unfurling beyond the moment of first witness. Death Zephyr, partnered with its cousin, Thunder Raining Poison (2015), ‘is an embodied response to the ongoing fallout from nuclear bomb tests undertaken by British and Australian Governments at Maralinga, South Australia, between 1953 and 1963, [which] should be listed as a crime against humanity’, as Natalie Harkin wrote in the Southerly Journal (2017).

Harkin is an artist and an old friend of Scarce’s, working at the intersections of performance, poetry, politics and archive. In her recent collection Archival Poetics (2019) she makes reference to her friend’s artwork Florey and Fanny (2011). The work is a hand-sewn duo of aprons made by Scarce, her grandmother and great-grandmother’s names stitched in, glass yams weighing down the pockets. On surface level the garments have a relatable sweetness, yet aprons are a macabre signifier for Aboriginal women, many of whom were coerced or forced into domestic work during early settler years. Care and softness are available there for those who have patience enough for it to reveal itself.

This fabric-weave-strong veils her heart / never alone / her family / her home / in her pocket she carries her heart
Bush Plum Lament by Natalie Harkin

Aboriginal people traverse this country wearing different layers of experience to non-Aboriginal people in Australia. In every space we go into, we are called upon to represent our people culturally. To provide a perspective. To add diversity. Art allows us to create something outside of ourselves without our continual labour or leak of energy from our personhood. It’s in this way Scarce can participate in the creation of a new archive, of Aboriginal stories told in Aboriginal ways. She comments, ‘I always say I’d like to leave behind something of significance once I’ve passed away. So it’s there for other people – not to enjoy, because the work I create is quite dark – but you hope there’s a positive outcome because it’s educating people. I don’t want to exhaust myself trying to educate someone who doesn’t want to listen. Whereas an artwork that might draw them in and slap them around a bit, that’s a good thing. Because they’re never going to forget that, it’s going to stay in their memory.’

Scarce’s practice is full of those moments, fleshing out stories from her own family, from the lens of a blackfulla rather than the colonial archive. Representing a variety of experiences, reclaiming power and contributing a unique voice to the myriad First Nations chorus across the country. ‘I prefer putting my energy into something that’s going to be worthwhile at the end of the day’, explains Scarce, ‘growing up in this country as a blackfulla I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had to “educate” someone who wants to “help” but isn’t willing to listen. They still want to control the situation. There’s still that colonial view of how we should be, as an Aboriginal person.’

In spite of her well established art practice, national representation in galleries and collections and appearances on the global arts stage, this double-take from viewers has extended to her practice as a glass blower. Scarce adds, ‘[People say] “so you blow the glass yourself?” I reply, “what, do you think I don’t make my own work?”. It comes up often, that perception you can’t do things for yourself. I trained for four years at university!’

As the second recipient of the Yalingwa Fellowship, a $60,000 prize for ‘remarkable First Peoples artists’, and the creator of the 2019 NGV Architectural Commission, In Absence, it is a disappointment to learn that she regularly has to wield this defiance.

Most artists have an intimate knowledge and close relationship to their materials. Yet the meditative repetition required to create Scarce’s artworks and the relationship that develops between the gaffer and assistant in the studio extends the truism to a new level. In an NGV interview, she said that she’s literally, ‘making yams out of my own breath’ with glass, but the dependence on studio collaborators and the physicality required to create each piece is belied by the elegant, simple way Scarce presents her artworks. ‘I have a lot of respect for the medium itself because it shows no mercy. You have to work hard for it, have a mutual respect for it. It’s about the people you work with in the studio as well, you have to be aware of your surroundings. [At a recent residency at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham] I became quite close with an assistant quite quickly. You have to build that respect for each other, or it’s never going to work. You have to be up front and talk quickly. If you don’t, you burn yourself or you burn others. You should be able to just take it, and know that you are not being rude. If you’re going to be working with someone closely for four hours you’ve gotta like each other. Be able to have a laugh. And actually be quiet, be silent’.

The trust that Scarce has established with collaborators at Jam Factory in Adelaide has enabled her to continue ‘making’ in a sense, leaning on their associates a bit more this year, to create work for an exhibition at TarraWarra Museum of Art later this year, though future travel plans are on hold for now. With field work, research and trips to Country intrinsic parts of her practice, the pandemic demanded an unwilling pause. Scarce states, ‘we should be able to do [art] without restrictions during a pandemic. It’s part of our way of building knowledge and teaching. I’ve been thinking of that a lot. Personally, not being able to go back home, what does that mean [for us]? It’s stopping us from being together. It’s sad for me at the moment, I need to be able to go back when I need to. Sit with aunties, cousins. It’s a huge part of who I am as an artist.’

With much of normal life falling silent there has been widespread retreat and respect for larger forces at play this year. Many of us have been forced to stand back and create new rhythms. In this moment, I wonder how we can be like glass, fragile but also strong. And given how tightly interwoven Aboriginal creative practice and identity is – plus the widespread demands on artists to conjure entertainment or to document this moment in time – it doesn’t feel too bold to suggest that what we do might be an essential service.

This conversation was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 53, 2020.

Missile Park
27 March – 14 June 2021
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.

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