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  • Yhonnie Scarce, Only a Mother Could Love Them, 2016, glass and bush plums. © Janelle Low

Glass artist Yhonnie Scarce shines a light on the oppression of Aboriginal people

The Australian artist talks to Crafts magazine's Debika Ray 

Portrait of Yhonnie Scarce. © Janelle Low

You trained as a glassblower at the South Australian School of Arts, and then studied Fine Art at the University of Melbourne. How do you combine these schoolings in your work?

My work is related to the colonisation of Australia and the treatment of Aboriginal people, which I believe the country is yet to properly acknowledge. We often referred to the ‘amnesia’ related to this colonisation, through genocide, eugenics and blood quantum principles.

Even though I’m technically trained, I call myself an artist who uses glass, rather than a ‘glass artist’, because for me glass is simply a medium to tell stories like this one. Aboriginal people are often seen as fragile, but we are pretty tough – we’ve dealt with a lot over the past 200 years. Similarly, glass has a lot of strength. Even though it’s delicate, it doesn’t always break and, if it does, there are always remnants left.

Thunder Raining Poison, 2015, 2,000 glass yams. © Janelle Low

How does your work draw on your own personal and familial history?

Growing up as an Aboriginal woman in Australia has been tough. I have often faced questions around identity: I find it offensive when someone says I’m not black enough to be Aboriginal because I have fair skin and blue eyes. This is part of a long history of finding ways to oppress Aboriginal people.

One of my works, The Cultivation of Whiteness (2013), is about scientific testing on Aboriginal people, particularly by the ethnographer Norman Tindale. In the late 1930s he travelled Australia taking skin, blood, hair and saliva samples and measuring the circumference of people’s body parts, in an attempt to classify them as fully or part Aboriginal. My artwork comprises a series of scientific beakers in which are 60 blown-glass bush bananas, coloured in black lustre with a mirror-like quality.

The work is also about the dissection of deceased bodies and the history of skeletal remains of Aboriginal people being sent to museums around the world. The bush bananas resemble corpses in various stages of decomposition. I often use food to refer to our culture, as well as to bodies – bush plums and bush bananas as uteruses or embryonic stages of pregnancy, kidneys or hearts, as well as long yams to reference death and genocide.

Yhonnie Scarce, Glass Bomb (Blue Danube), 2015, handblown glass bomb and yams. © Janelle Low

You were born in Woomera in South Australia. Has that influenced you?

About 15 hours west of Woomera, where my family lived, is Maralinga, where the British conducted nuclear testing in the 1950s. Dust and clouds travelled from the site across the state making many people sick, and the infant death rate was high during and after those tests. Recently I’ve made work that references these events, which I felt were not being talked about. Thunder Raining Poison (2015) is inspired by rainfall and comprises 2,000 blown glass yams suspended in a formation, 5m high and 3.5m wide. Death Zephyr (2017) represents the low-lying clouds that were the most detrimental because they were so close to where people lived.

There are also works that reference the children affected during that time: Fallout Babies (2016) is a series of cribs containing glass bush plums, which refer to different stages of pregnancy; in Only a Mother Could Love Them (2016), the bush plumbs are deformed, to represent the children born without body parts.

How does travel fit into your work?

Fieldwork is important. I visited Chernobyl, Fukushima and Hiroshima last year. I have sought out places outside Australia where First Nations people have been victims of genocide, such as Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where more than 300 people were massacred in 1890. I have been to concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. I have also visited memorials such as those in Popina Memorial Park in Serbia. These travels were part of a collaborative project – The Image is Not Nothing (Concrete Archives) – with artist and writer Lisa Radford.

I will also produce a new body of work within the next 12-18 months. In order to make work about these stories, you need to go to the sites, because they have memories you can feel when you visit.

Julie Gough, Dark Valley, Van Diemen’s Land, 2008, Tasmanian coal on nylon on oak and antlers. Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Which artists have most inspired you?

I was introduced to Christian Boltanski’s work at art school. What drew me to him was his acknowledgement of the victims of the Holocaust and of history, and the materials that he uses, such as photographs, clothing and lighting. I’m also heavily influenced by Aboriginal Australian artists Julie Gough and Vernon Ah Kee: I admire their fearlessness and drive to create artworks that target the treatment of Aboriginal people during the Frontier Wars – the colonisation of Australia. I see their work as historical documentation, much like my own practice.

Tell me about your residency at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. What interests you about the local context and how will this manifest in your work?

The University of Birmingham is where the first calculations for the atomic bomb were written by physicists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls. Part of my residency will be about researching those scientists: hopefully I’ll spend time in the lab where they worked and talk to historians who have written about them.

I will probably create a suspended work, in collaboration with scientific glassblowers in Birmingham, about the internal structures of these weapons and the equipment that might have been around when they were developed. Frisch and Peierls were aware of the danger of the nuclear atom when they began, but continued to work on it anyway. Not long after that came the Manhattan Project – and Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Maralinga. When you think of weapons of mass destruction, it all sort of started in Birmingham.

‘Yhonnie Scarce’ is at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 9 April – 31 May

The article originally appeared in Crafts' March/April issue – out now

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