Commissioned work for National Artist's Self-Portrait Prize, 2013, University of Queensland Art Museum, glass domes, family photographs from the Tindale Collection. Photo: Alex Lofty

A lens and a mirror

Daniel Browning in conversation with Yhonnie Scarce.

Yhonnie Scarce, Not Willing to Suffocate, 2012, glass, painted metal
Yhonnie Scarce, Not Willing To Suffocate, 2012, glass, painted metal. Courtesy the artist and Dianne Tanzer Gallery + projects. Photo: Janelle Lowe

Last year the glass artist Yhonnie Scarce, whose heritage is Kokatha and Nukunu, was selected to feature in an official collateral exhibition of the 55th International Venice Biennale. A new work, Blood on the Wattle (2013), was commissioned for the exhibition at Palazzo Bembo near the Rialto Bridge and featured 225 hand-blown glass anthropomorphic forms encased in a perspex casket. Rather than re-present the work commissioned for Venice, Scarce produced a new work for the National Gallery of Victoria’s survey exhibition Melbourne Now. Blood on the Wattle (Elliston, 1849) is a memorial to the victims of a massacre on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. In this conversation with writer and broadcaster Daniel Browning, Scarce reflects on the power of glass as a medium to convey a political message, on serendipity, memorialisation and historical trauma.

Daniel Browning: As a medium, glass can be unforgiving. You work with extremely hot temperatures, often in solitude. It’s also physically demanding. Do you think that has an effect on the work you produce?

Yhonnie Scarce: Not at all, I guess because I chose to work with blown glass and was aware of the extremities when working with a medium which begins in a molten state. I often prepare myself mentally and physically before I begin a session in the “hot shop”. Most sessions are within a four-hour time frame so if I haven’t eaten well beforehand it can be hard on your body and can leave me pretty tired afterwards. But I do it because I love glass as a medium.

There is a sense that the objects you make, and I’m thinking about the bush foods – the long yams for example – there’s a sense of them being somehow organic. And you’ve said the forms are anthropomorphic, that they stand for something else.

The bush food I create represents Aboriginal people and culture and is also created “organically”. The yams particularly have taken on their own life in my work. In the works that refer to massacres and genocide the yams have been used to represent bodies/corpses.

They are also beautiful in and of themselves. As you create them, do you always know how the glass will react to certain things? Recently you’ve started to experiment with the medium by submerging it in water which creates quite beautiful effects on the surface.

Sometimes, I allow the glass to do its own thing and I try not to control it too much. So some of the bush food may come out a little dented in places and may be a little off centre but I like the fact that every object that I make is completely different to the other. I have had friends say that they believe that pieces have their own personalities. And, to be honest, glass can be a little temperamental at times, so if I allow that to happen and work with it, not against it, something really interesting can come out of it. The submersion of glass in water can be really exciting but also pretty nerve-wracking. Because you have no idea how the glass is going to react to being placed in a pool of water. It’s really exciting if the piece survives. Then you’re left with beautiful cracking effects.

Yhonnie Scarce, Blood On The Wattle, 2013, blown glass and perspex. Courtesy the artist and Dianne Tanzer Gallery. Photo: Janelle Low

Glass has its shortcomings – it’s fragile, you can lose control. Does it ever let you down?

No, not really. Sometimes I see it as a kind of serendipitous thing that happens. I have some pieces that have come out of the kiln with cracks so lately I have been incorporating this type of fragility into my work.

You’ve exhibited widely now – both here and overseas. In terms of the way your work is received, is anything lost in translation when you exhibit overseas?

Oh yeah, definitely, particularly in America. Mostly because of the success of the more traditional paintings over there I have come across people who don’t really understand that there are artists living and working in the cities here in Australia. So sometimes they find it difficult to understand that we are creating artworks that are about our identity as Aboriginal people but it is often seen as not authentic enough for them. I should add that it’s not every American that thinks that way, it’s just a number of people that I have come across during visits to the United States who don’t understand the artworks created by “urban” Aboriginal artists.

I remember you saying that when you exhibited Burial Ground  in The Netherlands, which has a very long colonial history of its own, people there really seemed to understand what it was about.

Yeah, the curators of that particular exhibition were totally on to it. They seemed to be aware or, I would say, interested in Australia’s Aboriginal history so they understood where Burial ground was coming from.

Can you talk about collaboration in your work – despite it being quite solitary, nowadays you need a lot of hands to produce it.

Lately, I have been creating large-scale works with a lot of glass so I have been working with more assistants. I’ve always enjoyed being in my own head space when working in the hot shop, but I have been a fan of collaboration for a while now so it’s been great to work with people who are like-minded and enjoy working together as a group.

On the idea of collaboration, you work very closely with a photographer, Janelle Low, who seems to capture the beauty and the silence of your work.

Janelle and I have been working together for a few years now and I actually don’t see her as someone who just documents my work. Janelle is a very talented artist in her own right, so she is very creative in how she views my artwork and we often talk about my ideas and how the work will look like before she photographs it. Janelle and I have a very unique way of working together, you don’t often hear about other “documenters” working this closely with their clients. I feel very lucky to work with someone who doesn’t see my work as just another photographic job.

Yhonnie Scarce, Blood on the Wattle, 2013
Yhonnie Scarce, Blood On The Wattle, 2013, blown glass and perspex. Courtesy the artist and Dianne Tanzer Gallery. Photo: Janelle Low

You once said that your work is “politically motivated and emotionally driven”. Can you talk about that way of working in the context of Blood on the Wattle, the work that was exhibited at Palazzo Bembo in a collateral event of the 2013 Venice Biennale and Blood on the Wattle (Elliston, 1849) which you made for the National Gallery of Victoria’s survey exhibition Melbourne Now?

It angers me that there is very little recognition of the massacres in Australia and if there is a memorial created in an area that a massacre occurred it is really small, in my view anyway. I am often comparing these memorials to the Holocaust memorials in Germany and I am disgusted that Australia is so far behind other countries. Blood on the Wattle and Blood on the Wattle (Elliston, 1849) are the largest memorials I have created to date, I want people to have a place to mourn the ancestors that we have lost during these events and I want people who are unaware of these massacres to be aware that this is part of our history.

Perhaps you could talk about that political motivation – where does it come from?

It comes from my experiences growing up with racism and hearing about how my ancestors were treated before I was born. I use my artwork as a means of therapy and to channel something negative in to something positive. And I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut when it comes to expressing my views on Australia’s colonial history.

Your lived experience has shaped so much of the work you create.

Oh yeah, definitely if I couldn’t talk about it through my artwork I think I would go mad to be honest.

There’s also a sense of inherited memory, what they call historical trauma. You re-experience it when you look at the 1938 Tindale photographs of your ancestors who were living on the Koonibba mission in the far west of South Australia, which were produced in pretty extraordinary circumstances, sometimes against the will of those being photographed.

My family’s experience (particularly my grandparents) has been incredibly influential in my art practice and I have drawn on their strength and courage. They had to deal with things that were at times really harsh, but they still remained strong, I often say if it weren’t for their courage I wouldn’t be where I am today. That is what drives me to be open about bringing up the past because if we don't look at what happened when Australia was colonised how are we meant to move forward as a country and be treated as equals?

The glass is both a reflective mirror and a magnifying lens. I’m thinking of your series of family portraits, there’s one that’s been acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria and another that you created for the invitation-only National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize – they are honest and deeply personal statements. You lay yourself bare in your work – is that a hard thing to do?

In terms of creating my work, I feel the need to be completely honest with how I see things as an Aboriginal person. I feel that I am in a really good position to tell the history of Aboriginal Australia through my artwork so that’s probably why I don’t hold back when it comes to creating work that discusses the treatment of Aboriginal people.

Can you talk about the background to Weak In Colour But Strong In Blood (2014), the work you made for the 19th Biennale of Sydney?

It was created in response to the Eugenics movement which involved scientific testing on Aboriginal Australians during the 1930s.

Yhonnie Scarce, Weak in Colour But Strong in Blood
Yhonnie Scarce, Weak in Colour But Strong in Blood, 2014, blown glass and found components. Commissioned for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney and installed at the Art Gallery of NSW. Courtesy the artist and Dianne Tanzer Gallery. Photo: Janellle Low


Daniel Browning is a descendant of the Bundjalung people of northern New South Wales, and the Kullili people of south-western Queensland. He is a journalist and presenter of Awaye!, the Indigenous art and culture program on ABC Radio National.

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