Yhonnie Scarce

Yhonnie Scarce is a Kokatha and Nukunu artist who employs the medium of glass to dazzling effect, weighing in on the colonial trauma and displacement of Aboriginal peoples. Born in Woomera SA, she holds a Master of Fine Arts from Monash University and her works are held in major public collections across the country. In Scarce’s practice, glass becomes a political and aesthetic lens through which to filter the opaque narratives and transparent truths of Australian history.

Welcome back from your trip! Where did you go?
Lisa Radford (artist) and I were awarded funding from Creative Victoria, as part of a creative fund. The research took us around memorials, massacre and nuclear disaster sites, which links back to my research in the Maralinga atomic test sites in the 1950 and 1960s by the British. We did six countries in six weeks

It also became a trip to visit Brutalist architecture – memorials made out of concrete in eastern Europe. And we went to New York to see the exhibition ‘Towards a Concrete Utopia’ at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). From there we travelled down to South Dakota to visit the Wounded Knee 1890 massacre site and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The trip was to connect, and I intend to go back to continue this.

We then went on to visit Chernobyl, then onto Georgia, Fukushima, Hiroshima, and exploring the peace parks in Japan. I’m interested in how others built sites for memorials. It was an emotional trip!

There are quite clear manifestations of the emotional, and personal, in your artworks, which relates to the power of glass as a medium. How did you arrive at glass?
I always say glass found me. While I was learning how to blow glass, it just seemed to appear everywhere – like seeing hand-made objects in op shops. I never thought I would have the opportunity to learn and I became besotted. You either love it or hate it as it makes you work hard; there is a respect for the medium and the challenge. The heat becomes addictive in the end!

How did you start making your little glass yams?
Well, it’s funny, because I’m not as skilled as most glass blowers, so my work has never been perfect, and bush food is the same. It is different and has its own identities. They (the glass yams) became like individual people with a personality, but they still are from the same family, the same materials.

When you are learning how to blow glass, you look around to things that inspire you, mostly at bowls, glasses etc., but creating bush food in glass happened serendipitously. Looking at dishes I began to consider the food sharing process. I couldn’t see my creations as functional objects – they had to be real.

There is an intriguing space between food sharing and socially engaged art practices. The domestic can be explored to reveal behaviours and add to the cultural dialogue.
I agree, and the metaphor of food and sharing goes back to the way we ate as Aboriginal people. There is a divide culturally in the food, the habits. While I was in Japan, I noticed this with the tea ceremonies; food sharing is considered as a cultural practice. It was the same for Aboriginal people, and still is.

That’s the power of art, to start conversations that wouldn’t usually be had. Do you find you are working through things, or are your artworks reflective of your research?
Both! The work comes from genocide and the destructive behaviours of colonisation. I had so much anger when I was younger, and while I was studying at University I wanted to create something beautiful from this self-exploration of identity. I needed to confront the issues that I was living through in my twenties and release it – as an Aboriginal person you are living it every day. I needed to make something positive out of it; otherwise I’d go crazy! My practice has taken me by surprise and helped me deal with a lot of things. It’s a learning process for me, exploring the stories and the histories.

Your art brings topics to a different audience – I’m particularly thinking of your installation Strontium 90: Fallout babies (2016), presented as last year’s Sydney Contemporary. This was such an emotional piece, looking at the 1950s to ‘60s British atomic testing in Maralinga, SA, especially with the found baby cribs…
Art can be very sad, and that work is confronting, thinking about all those kids in the infant graves in Woomera. My mum would tell me stories growing up, and it was an experience for me to go back after being away for so long. I mean you wouldn’t go to Woomera on holiday, but it’s required for me to keep going back, as this is where my family is from. I’ve been three or four times now thanks to my art practice.

I used to feel weird about being born in Woomera, but now I have a sense of ownership. I know about this history and what happened there.

How does it feel meeting other communities across the world that have similar narratives at play in their homes?
Going to the Pine Tree Reservation was incredible, meeting the strong people there, in their everyday lives – and also seeing the covering up of the racism in the town, which shouldn’t be happening today in the 21st Century.

The way Aboriginal people and First Nations people are treated, I can’t even describe it. You would hope things have changed, and they have… But, how many secrets are around… Even in Chernobyl, there is so much media control and misinformation about what’s happening in the ground there.

Once you start peeling back the layers, I guess you see how many lies are built up. The amount of massacre sites in Australia is so shocking, and many people don’t even know.
I found this when we were talking to people in Fukushima, telling them about Maralinga. Most people in Australia didn’t even know! And, it’s kind of scary. It’s nuclear. I find it’s the same with the massacre sites; a lot weren’t documented because the police were involved as well.

Art allows you to explore these narratives and histories in an honest way. What have been your favourite works to create?
That’s true, but for me it goes beyond this and becomes about sharing my own identity and history. My favourite works fit within this narrative, Death Zephyr (2016–2017) and Thunder Raining Poison, (2015), which look at the ‘atomic glass cloud’. My work for Australia Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Remembering Royalty (2018), was so special to me as this was my family. It was very personal. And then my absolute favourite is probably my first work, from my Honours year – Oppression, Repression (family portrait) (2004). That’s where it began, it was quite important to me to be small and intimate. It was picked up by the National Gallery of Victoria, and that’s where it all began!

After Technology
26 February – 18 April, 2019
UTS Gallery, University of Technology, Sydney

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